The women behind America’s successful Space Race…
I have always been a huge fan of Historical Drama. The use of fiction to tell a factual story is nothing new however films can paint a better picture of history in people’s minds than most other media through the costumes, set design, cinematography, music and dialogue.
The great power of movies is how they can draw our attention to important issues and/or previously untold stories. Although this film is an adaptation of a book, without the Hidden Figures film being released, this story would not have received as much mainstream awareness.
Hidden Figures is a story about the black women ‘Computers’ who worked at NASA during the “space race” – the early 1960’s, when the team at NASA were trying to get a human being into orbit – and the moon landing was still a pipe dream at this stage.
The film is set against the backdrop of two major political & social challenges engulfing American: The Cold War with Russia and the Civil Rights movement. Both of these significant shifts underpin the struggles faced by the women within this film.
The story is centred on three women, Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan & Mary Jackson.
They were some of many female ‘computers’ whose main job at NASA was to calculate maths equations set by the all-male teams during the fight to beat Russia into space. While it’s true these three women worked at NASA during the period the film is set, for many reasons, creative licensing was used to interweave their stories more than in real life. Having said that, their academic and professional achievements depicted in the film did occur in real life.
Many of us would not have been born during the period of Hidden Figures but as a result of this movie, we have a better understanding of what happened and what these women had to deal with on a daily basis. This is in part because the point of view presented throughout the film, is of those who suffered. Among other things, we see the judging eyes, the uncomfortable stares, the annoyed looks and all-round disdain from their co-workers these women endured. It certainly puts into perspective the trials and tribulations of today’s office environment.
On top of the difficult daily racism they encounter, the segregation laws in place across Virginia stand within the walls of NASA, making it that bit harder for them to complete their jobs. One of the strongest examples of this in the film is Katherine G Johnsons bathroom ‘dashes’. Where she has to run (in heels, I might add!) across one wing of NASA, through a parking lot, to the West Computer office to go to the “Coloured” bathroom. The ridiculousness of this situation is finally laid bare when Katherine is again perceived as shirking on her work responsibilities. She has the gumption to stand up for herself in front her boss making it clear exactly what she has to deal with and where her time is being spent. As a result, he removes the labelling above the toilet doors and any segregation within his team’s office space. For Katherine’s boss, he saw a need of his own not being fulfilled, which was Katherine at her desk doing her work and the segregation laws were a barrier to achieving this. This may not have occurred in real life, but it is a poignant moment and a turning point within the film.
These women were not only pushing boundaries of what black people could undertake, they were pushing boundaries of what women could do. They were mothers and wives who worked full time, which is not something most people associate with women of this era. Although it wasn’t a focus of the film, you could tell the community surrounding these women is what helped them to succeed and that hasn’t changed much in 60 years. Communities help raise children and keep people moving forward.
One of the film’s major storylines is about the first iteration of the computers that we know today. IBM’s computers were installed at NASA during the space race, and once these computers were functional, they would supersede the human computers. This would have put the women featured in this film out of jobs. Both in the film and real life, Dorothy Vaughn had the foresight to understand the impact of this change and realised that although the machine computers could calculate much faster than humans, someone still needed to program them. This storyline showed that technological impact on employment is not a new thing. The lesson is in order to stay relevant in a changing landscape, people need to learn and adapt their skills.
In the same way Aesop’s Fables have lessons for the reader, films such as Hidden Figures use a combination of fiction and fact, to teach us lessons as well.
The main theme carried throughout this film, through their story, through NASA’s goal to get a man into orbit, is not to settle for the status quo. Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Innovation and growth come from pushing boundaries and without new thinking, the astronauts would not have landed on the moon.
Katherine G Johnson passed away recently at the age of 101. It’s a shame her achievements, and those of the other black women computers at NASA, were hidden from us for such a long time. I am glad she at least received the recognition she deserved a few years before her passing.
- Katherine Johnson, Nasa mathematician portrayed in Hidden Figures, dies at 101
- The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA
- Hidden Figures: the true story behind the women who changed Nasa’s place in the Space Race
- The women of Hidden Figures
- The NASA women who inspired ‘Hidden Figures’ will get Congressional gold medals