“Hidden Figures” Shines As Bright As The Stars

Three things I didn’t know before watching Hidden Figures:

  1. NASA put people in space before they fully knew how to use IBM computers
  2. They were able to use this because of computing groups, female mathematicians who performed these calculations; one of which groups was all Black.
  3. Calculations created and done by a specific Black woman, Katherine Johnson, allowed the first American to orbit the earth three times.

Hidden Figures is so important. It uncovers parts of history that have been purposely silenced and shines them brighter than ever. Everything I learned in the film felt like I was regaining a piece of my history that had been stolen from me. It tells the story of three women who worked tirelessly without any appreciation because they believed their work was important. It’s the story of true American patriots—not John Glenn, but Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Hensen), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé), the women whose tireless work sent him to space. These were women who fought racism and sexism by giving their all, regardless of the fact that almost no one around them appreciated it.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same name, Hidden Figures gave me so much #BlackGirlMagic. Hensen, Spencer, and Monaé play three badass space ladies whose work made space travel a reality. They support each other, they laugh with one another, they speed down country roads together. They also raise children, have families, and navigate the intersections of race and sex that make being a Black woman difficult at anytime, especially so during the Jim Crow era.

The three characters begin the movie working together as “computers” in the West Area Computing Unit, NASA’s all-Black female group of mathematicians who worked at Langley Research center in Hampton, Virginia from 1943-1958. Let that sink in for a moment—for fifteen years, in Jim Crow Virginia, before the introduction of IBM computers, Black women were doing the calculations that sent humans into outer space. Throughout the film each of the women move on from the computing unit, however—Johnson to the Flight Research Division, Vaughan to computer programming, and Jackson to engineering.

What was most inspiring to me about the film though wasn’t how hard these women worked and where it got them; I’ve always known Black women can and do change the world; I was raised by one. What made my heart soar was that no one was left behind. So often, stories like this end up in such a way that everyone can’t win, but that wasn’t true with this one. These women knew that success had to be for all of them or it meant nothing, and they constantly put that into practice. When Katherine gets moved to flight research and is kept late, Dorothy and Mary wait for her. When Dorothy is finally offered a position programming computers—a skill she taught herself, she refuses to take it unless she’s sure all of the women working in her computing unit will have jobs as well. They support each other because they know no one else will.

That’s why, even though it’s a beautiful story, Hidden Figures is not always an easy film to watch. My mouth dried in fear and anticipation as I watched a police officer approach the women in one of the first scenes when their car has broken down, and instead of offering to help, menacingly asks Monaé’s character Mary, “Are you being disrespectful?” while holding a club. Katherine is made to run a half-mile each time she needs to use the bathroom because NASA is still segregated and the only bathroom for her is halfway across the campus. Dorothy is spoken to like a child by her supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, and continuously denied a supervisor position of her own, despite doing the work. They experience racism when they go to the library, or try to go to school, or even drink coffee in their own office. They experience sexism disguised as loving concern from their own husbands and boyfriends. The calculations that Katherine Johnson created that allowed John Glenn to orbit the earth are not officially attributed to her. They are slighted far more than they’re recognized.

But what matters most to these women isn’t the support of their colleagues, it’s each other’s support. This unyielding support for each other felt so familiar to me as someone navigating the academic (white) boys’ clubs every day. Being Black and choosing academia is not an easy choice. It’s a decision you make because you love the work, sometimes more than than you should, and without a strong support system, it would be impossible to survive. Throughout the movie, one of Katherine’s colleagues does everything he can to break her down, not because he thinks she can’t do the work, but because he’s threatened by the fact that she can do the work.

He gives her completely crossed out work and makes her do calculations with no information, he leaves her out of meetings, he makes her delete her name from her own calculations. But with the support of her gal pals she thrives. She doesn’t only do it for herself though. She does it for her daughters who look up to her, and for the women who have believed in her throughout her career. Her story rings so true to me; my work is for my community and myself and if we’re the only people who see it and celebrate it for its greatness, than so be it. But the thing about great work is that it won’t stay silent. Greatness speaks for itself.

Hidden Figures a story of triumph. It’s a story of women who don’t give up, who use their talents to see beyond and create something new and beautiful and important. It’s a story of firsts. It’s a story of women who don’t want to be in the boys’ club, because they’ve got their own club. It’s a story of greatness demanding acknowledgement. Every time we get a new image of the stars and planets in space it’s because of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson’s work. More than anything, Hidden Figures reminded me just how hard we have to keep fighting for Black women and just how important it is for us to honor and name Black women for the work that they do when they do it. Go see this film. Take your daughters and your friends’ daughters. Keep telling this story. Silences can’t exist if we don’t allow them to. When you’re stargazing, remember Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson’s work. Tell their stories over and over. They’ve been silenced for so long, now it’s our turn to keep them alive.

Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Al(aina) has written 209 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. I saw this on Christmas day when it was available in Chicago. I have not been this excited to see a movie in a while. The story was inspiring of course, but the uncomfortable truths were even better. I am still waiting for Lego to approve this line of women (including Johnson and Jemison)!

  2. I loooooved this movie! It passed the Duvernay Test AND the Bechdel Test in the first minute and made it look easy AND it was really good!!

    (With most movies that pass, you have to be like, “Well, the female commander did talk to the female hero at the assembly for a few sentences, but men spoke too, does that count?” Or like, “Oh, remember the time she told her where the bathroom is?”).

  3. I just got back from seeing this movie and it exceeded all expectations. There was a sold out showing before us and ours was pretty packed. Made me almost wish I had chosen aerospace engineering instead of mechanical.

  4. Damn this isn’t released until 17th February where I live, but at least my parents are visiting that weekend so I can take my space fan dad to see it.

    Really can’t wait and I hope it gets a lot of money at the box office so studios might start to believe films with black women in lead roles can be profitable.

  5. I was just talking with a white cis man. We didn’t have a lot to talk about, so when the topic of movies came up I was excited, because I wanted to talk about how much I loved this one.

    And he, a Serious Movie Guy, told me dismissively it felt cliche. The bit where Katherine Johnson dramatically tells her supervisor about the inconvenient restroom, for instance. Surely she could have just told him the first day, and he would have fixed it.

    I kind of hate this man now. I wish I had articulated it better to him, but what I wanted to say is, how can this movie be cliche when *THERE ARE NO MOVIES LIKE IT*?

    Movies about black people, or women, or serious scientists are rare; movies about any combination of the two rarer yet; movies with three main characters who are all three of these things, where the characters are also fully dimensional and have lives and personalities, are pretty much nonexistent as far as I know.

    Fuck that guy. I’ll leave him to his Serious Movies about Serious White Men, i.e. the only who can really be serious.

    • What frustrates me even more about this man’s comment is the fact that it appears he has no concept of what it feels like to be disempowered, or worried about your safety or job security, because of your identity.

      No she could not just mention that there was no bathroom available to her because THERE INTENTIONALLY WAS NO BATHROOM AVAILABLE FOR HER because black women were not welcome in those spaces. That’s part of the point.

  6. This movie points out one glaring problem with NASA all these years. They pointed out the politicians that made it happen. They point out the engineers that designed the space program. They pointed out the Astronauts that flew the missions. But they never pointed out the Mathematicians that made it happen. NASA didn’t have calculators and computers that could run the numbers. People had to do it. And women especially black women made it happen. I think NASA never said anything not because it was a race thing or even a gender thing it was technology. Technology passed by so quickly and it made no sense to them to acknowledge Mathematics because they never respected it. They respected engineering and the math to do that. But not the long calculation and algorhythms of orbital flight. To them that long math was just checking the numbers. But its role was bigger. The role of that math paved the way for the internet. It paved the way for AI. It paved the way for Siri.

    • “I think NASA never said anything not because it was a race thing or even a gender thing it was technology.”

      Nah it was totally a race and gender thing, in my opinion. which is why they made women the mathematicians…bc sure, they might not have cared about the path, and so they put people in those positions who they didn’t think needed to be recognized–mainly black women.

    • America has a history of devaluing roles held by women, however. People often fall back on the argument of “we didn’t think that job was as important” to justify lack of recognition or lower pay, but when you look closer the job was considered less important *because* women held it. Moreso when it was black women.

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