The 2017 Oscar nominations were recently announced and among the Best Picture nominees was Hidden Figures, a based-on-true-events film about three incredibly talented African-American women who worked at NASA in the early 1960s as the United States struggled to match the Soviets in the race to space. It is an exciting, well-done movie that touches on several themes that are fully relevant today.
The movie is set in Hampton, Virginia at NASA’s Langley Research Center. In an age just before computers, the thousands upon thousands of mathematical calculations needed to put a man into orbit around the earth were done be a large pool of mathematically-gifted African-American women (called “computers”) who were tucked away in a down-trodden corner of the Langley complex.
As these women quietly go about their work, the film depicts the struggles of the engineering team building the Mercury capsule and the trajectory team plotting the orbital route of the space craft, both stymied by seemingly unsolvable problems. This is all presented in the context of television clips showing the unnerving news that the Soviets successfully launched a man into outer space and brought him back safely, a clear marker that the other side was winning the space race and the imagined domination of earth that would result.
Desperate to succeed quickly, NASA supervisors demanded their subordinates find the most talented individuals they could for reinforcements. Plucked out of the “computers” pool, Katherine Johnson quickly demonstrated her brilliance and made essential contributions to the orbital team. But she incurred the wrath of the big boss (played in the movie by Kevin Costner) by disappearing from her desk for 30 minutes each afternoon. Finally confronted about these unexplained absences, Johnson furiously and tearfully explains that the only “colored” restroom in the still-segregated facility is that far away. Previously oblivious to this indignity, but now seeing it as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the mission, Costner grabs a crowbar and rips race-limiting signs from bathroom entrances, impulsively overturning the existing policy of segregation.
Racism is not the only –ism in this movie. The reality of sexism runs a close second, as these brilliant women are kept from meetings and programs because “women aren’t allowed in here.” Again, the need to accomplish the mission causes that barrier to weaken, at least temporarily.
Hidden Figures also touches on the displacement of work by technology, another theme wholly relevant today. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oscar-nominee Octavia Spencer), the unofficial and uncompensated supervisor of the human computer pool, stumbles upon an enormous, just-delivered IBM computer, the first at the Langley complex. Realizing that this electronic computer will soon do the work of her human computers and leave them jobless, she covertly learns how to program the machine while the male IBM and NASA technicians assigned that task can’t figure it out. Smuggling manuals back to the human computer room, Vaughan quietly taught her colleagues computer programing, something no one else on the complex was learning. Finally, the white male technicians and their superiors discover that Vaughan is the only one who has been able to get the IBM to do calculations, so she is brought on board, soon to be joined by her already-trained colleagues. Their old jobs may not have been saved, but by recognizing the opportunities presented by new technology, they were able to transition to new and better jobs instead of being cast aside.
Finally, Hidden Figures is a reminder of how the can-do attitude and respect for science that prevailed flowed directly from the space program in the 1960s brought us closer together as a country and caused everyone to but the appropriate high value on science, math, technology, and the talented experts who engaged in those fields. The societal respect for knowledge and learning depicted in this movie seem regrettably absent in America today where skepticism of experts and disregard for science reign supreme.
Hidden Figures is still showing at the Lowell Cinema and in theaters in Tyngsboro and Burlington. It’s a great movie in many respects. Intellectually, you may know how it ends, but sitting there watching John Glenn rattling back towards earth, you still break a sweat worrying if he’s going to make it. Please see this movie.