Three things I didn’t know before watching Hidden Figures:
- NASA put people in space before they fully knew how to use IBM computers
- They were able to use this because of computing groups, female mathematicians who performed these calculations; one of which groups was all Black.
- 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.