Film & Television

‘Hidden Figures’ Celebrates Unsung Heroes of the Space Race

It’s 2017 and most movies that come out of Hollywood are still about white men. Here at Women’s Voices for Change, we often bemoan the scarcity of roles for smart women. And, we weren’t the only ones who noticed the lack of diversity at last year’s Oscars (#oscarsowhite). What a treat then for movie lovers to end 2016 (or begin 2017) with Hidden Figures. The film centers around three African-American women — deservedly celebrated for their intelligence, their determination, and their undeniable contribution to our nation’s history. Hidden Figures is based on true events, stories that should be told.

When you think of the early days of the U.S. space program, the iconic images that come to mind are mostly white men: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn. (The Astronaut Wives Club, ABC’s short-lived 2015 series celebrated their spouses, but it’s no surprise that they (a) took a backseat and (b) were a fairly homogenous lot — unless you count blondes, brunettes and redheads as diversity.)

On the other hand, Hidden Figures dramatizes the contributions — and challenges — of three “colored computers,” underpaid and underappreciated mathematicians at NASA in the early 1960s. It’s based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. The movie is directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, 2014), and the script is also by Melfi along with Allison Schroeder.

The first woman we meet is Katherine Johnson. As a child, she was a math prodigy whose teachers raised funds so her family could send her to the most advanced (colored) school available. As an adult, she’s working in the Computers Division at the Langley Research Center, supporting her mother and three young daughters. Her peerless abilities land her in the all-white Space Task Group, where she is asked to double check the calculations of her superiors, even though half of their work is blacked out because she doesn’t have security clearance. Her brilliance shines through (and is thoroughly resented), but her otherness is painfully obvious. As the only colored worker in the group, she has to race a half-mile across the facility’s campus (in heels, no less) to use the appropriate segregated bathroom.

Katherine’s friend Dorothy Vaughn faces institutionalized discrimination as well. She effectively supervises the department of computers, but is denied the title or salary she deserves. When she learns that NASA’s new investment in IBM mainframes will make her department obsolete, she takes it upon herself to save not only her own job but those of her team. She takes her two sons to the local library to find a book on Fortran programming. Prohibited from borrowing it because it isn’t in the colored section she slips it into her purse. “Did you steal that?” her son gasps, as they ride home (in the back of the bus). “I pay taxes for that library, just like everybody else,” she snaps back.

The third “hidden figure” is Mary Jackson. She demonstrates an aptitude for engineering, but is barred from taking the night courses she needs because the local high school where they’re taught is for whites-only. She petitions a local judge to be allowed to attend, appealing to his inner vision as a legal pioneer rather than the inherent unfairness in segregated Virginia. When she shows up at her first class, her satisfaction — and sass — are loud and clear. “I don’t see a colored section,” she tells the astonished professor, “So I’ll just take any seat.”

Each woman’s personal struggles (and eventual triumphs) play out in a race against time (and, more importantly, against the Soviets) to launch a man into space. Hidden Figures is tremendously successful at recreating the high-stakes pressure of the 1961 space program, while engaging the audience in each woman’s personal story. The writing and directing are top-notch, even when they adhere to tried and true Hollywood formulas. But, the casting is simply superb.

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