Hidden Figures, the movie, enjoys its wide release today. I got to see the film last night. Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer out shine the stars in this beautiful film. Hidden Figures is based on the book which was released in mid-2016.
The movie was so anticipated, it was actually optioned before the book was even published. 2016 produced two amazing books about female computers and their contributions to the space race: Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures. Rise of the Rocket Girls focuses on the female computers in southern CA at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Hidden Figures follows the black women in Langley, Virginia who were computers for NACA and later NASA. Both books are excellent! And I highly recommend both of them. Go get them. Right now. It’s cool, I can wait. Got them ordered? Okay, let’s continue.
Back in the 1930’s women who liked math had limited career options: teacher, nurse, or secretary. These are the same options for all women, excelling math did nothing for you. Except, a woman could, in very particular circumstances, be hired as a computer. Because before computers were machines, computers were people who computed things. This complicated task often fell to women because it was considered basically clerical. That’s right: computing triple integrals all day long qualified as clerical. And, gosh, how many of us could do that today? Not many! I, for one, can’t do very much without the help of a machine computer. (I have been advocating for the benefits of using calculators for basic math for a while!) Without these highly skilled women putting pencil to paper, we would not be able to complete the most challenging orbital computations of the day.
Karl Zielinski: Let me ask you, if you were a white man would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary Jackson: I wouldn’t have to, I’d already be one.
Hidden Figures, the film
Women often couldn’t move up. Neither to management or to more challenging technical roles like engineering or mathematics. They were forever stuck in their role as a computer. Mary Jackson, one of the key characters in the narrative wishes that she could be an engineer. But “most of the country’s top engineering schools didn’t accept women. …As for black female engineers, there weren’t enough of the in the country to constitute a rounding error.” (Hidden Figures, Pg 144). The film chooses to make this a key plot line. Obviously the issues of today influence this choice, because black women are still struggling to get their fair shake at the jobs white women have worked at for decades.
On top of societal prejudice, there was also legal bounds holding these black women back. Segregation in all public life was standard at that time. And being that Virginia is in the south, segregation was even more ingrained in the laws and society. This was one of the pieces of magic that took place at Langley, in Hidden Figures. “Unlike public schools, where minuscule budgets and ramshackle facilities exposed the sham of “separate but equal,” the Langley employee badge supposedly gave Mary access to the same workplace as her white counterparts.” (Hidden Figures, pg 108) But, despite that, the women have to fight for each and every injustice to be removed. And I do mean each and every. For example, they wage a silent battle lasting many months where the ladies remove the “colored” sign from the lunch table everyday only to have it return the next day. In the film, this particular injustice wasn’t highlighted, instead the film focused on the immense challenges of colored bathrooms for Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson).
In this way, Hidden Figures gives beautiful insights into what it was like to be a female mathematician 50+ years ago. Hidden Figures has the added layer of communicating was it was like to a black female mathematician. “Compared to the white girls, [Mary] came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president.” (Hidden Figures, pg 108). I believe the film highlights this imbalance beautifully with their costume design. There is a fabulous scene where a large group of male scientists are gathered and every one of them has on a long sleeves white shirt with a thin black tie. Katherine Johnson is with them and is wearing a modest green dress. Despite it’s modesty, she stands out of a crowd with her color, style, and poise.
The film is sharp, witty and surprisingly optimistic. If you only see 1 movie in 2017, see this one. While there are other recent films about mathematicians (e.g. The Man Who Knew Infinity), Hidden Figures has the heart to make it a classic. Because if you are black or female or a mathematician or a fan of space, this film will speak to you. And if you aren’t any of these things… that’s okay! I won’t hold it against you. Go see this movie to learn more about life at Langley during the biggest and only race to space there ever was.
Paul Stafford: There’s no protocol for women attending.
Katherine Johnson: There’s no protocol for man circling the earth either, sir.
Hidden Figures, the film