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Hidden Figures [Movie Review]

Summary

Hidden Figures is a 2016 movie adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The film tells the story of three Black women who used their talents in mathematics and engineering to aid in America’s quest to successfully put an astronaut into orbit and safely return him to Earth. Pushing against racism and sexism, these three women would emerge as pioneers in the S.T.E.M. field and inspirations beyond.

Media

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Show Notes

Hidden Figures begins with Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) showing great promise of being a gifted mathematician as a child. With the help of teachers, she is able to attend a high school that is willing to accept her early. There’s a moment in this scene where Katherine is still a rather small child and she stands at the front of a class filled with some rather grown looking folks (though they’re most likely high school students). The school is explained as being some distance away and requires Katherine to move to attend. Wanting to encourage the obvious potential in the child her teachers pool their resources to raise the funds needed for the move.

It’s important to note that this is not a college we’re talking about but rather a high school. And also, this is not some special magnate or boarding school but a seemingly regular degular high school. Katherine wasn’t moving for some special educational opportunity but simply because there was no local high school for Black students.

If this was the only school available in the area just imagine how much other kids in the area were being short-changed with regards to their education. If you were an average student and/or your family or teachers didn’t have the means to send you to school in another town, your education would have ended in the eighth grade. You could pretty much forget about college. Your employment and career path options would be limited through no fault of your own but rather lack of opportunity.

I always lament who, what, and where we would be as a people without the historical (and present) obstacles of racism and lack of resources in our way. It shows the importance of not taking the opportunity to get an education for granted.

Moving forward several years, we find Katherine along with our other two heroines Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) on their way to their jobs at NASA. In the midst of the Cold War everyone is afraid of the Russians making greater advances with space exploration and being the first to put someone in space and/or orbit the Earth. This despite the times NASA hires the best and brightest minds in STEM to assist in the effort regardless of their race or gender.

NASA employs Black women but relegates them to working on calculations as “computers” or other low authority positions. Dorothy heads up the pool of Black female workers who are floated throughout NASA to temporarily fill roles based on individual department or team needs. She has the responsibilities of a supervisor but not the title or pay. Her application for supervisor has been unofficially denied but with no concrete reason beyond there being no permanent supervisor for the “colored group”. She does her job and then some but is prevented from advancing.

During Hidden Figures, NASA procures IBM computers that threaten to replace the human computers. When the electronic computers arrive there are issues with getting them installed and up and running. Rather than being threatened by the machines, Dorothy senses an opportunity and sets out to learn how to use the computers. Needing to learn the programming language Fortran she visits the library with her children in tow but is escorted out.

Given the time and industry, NASA is predominantly White and male. There is some discomfort with hiring Black people, and at that women, who are working in some of these departments for the first time. When Katherine is selected to join Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) Space Task Group her co-workers are passive-aggressively unwelcoming. She joins the team for the purpose of figuring out calculations needed for the trajectory of the Freedom 7 mission. Yet, within moments of entering the office, someone assumes that she is a cleaning lady and hands her trash to be disposed of.

There’s a bit of symbolism present in a scene with a coffee urn and mugs. Harrison has a private office but the rank and file all work at desks in a large room with an open floor plan. A table in the room serves as a refreshment station with a coffee urn that is surrounded by White coffee cups. Given the number of people in the office, it’s quite a large and impressive urn.

When Katherine arrives, she brings in her own mug that appears to be brown or black. Every head in the room turns the first time she approaches the urn to fill her cup with coffee. The next time Katherine goes to get some coffee there’s a separate urn. It’s labeled “Colored”, is smaller and is really just a plain coffee pot. They’ve effectively segregated the coffee.

Despite working towards a common goal, her co-workers, Paul Safford (Jim Parsons) in particular, belittle and sabotage her efforts. Safford makes it a point to redact the info Katherine needs to complete calculations. He tries to exclude her from meetings and rejects her reports, taking offense to her putting her name on the work she’s completed.

Something as human as needing to use the bathroom is made unnecessarily difficult by the segregation of toilets. The building in which Katherine works only has a Whites Only women’s restroom. This means that she has to leave the office, exit the building, run across the parking lot, and enter another building to get to a bathroom each time she needs to use it. What should be absences of a few minutes from her desk becomes these seemingly frequent stretches of time that she can’t be found.

Her boss Harrison, oblivious to this fact, attempts to berate her for constantly shirking her responsibilities. Frustrated by her unfair treatment and a series of macroagressions, she tells him off, which he completely deserves. As is the norm in these types of films, there is a White savior. Seeing the wrong of his ways, Harrison uses a sledgehammer to take down the segregated bathroom sign while a crowd gathers to watch. It’s quite privileged and self-absorbed to not notice these things. Harrison is the White savior inserted to show that not everyone was racist. But I reject that deposit. To be clear he wasn’t a bad guy but also doesn’t deserve praise for a basic act of humanity. These petty annoyances that were intended to demean and degrade should never have been in place to begin with.

Mary joins an engineering team that is working to fix design flaws in the space capsule’s heat shield. When she successfully identifies the problem, she’s encouraged to apply for an engineering position. But lacking the educational qualifications, she begins a journey to obtain access to classes that would enable her to officially become an engineer. But as Katherine experienced as a child, the necessary courses are not being taught at any local Black schools. This means that she must go to court and petition a judge to get permission to attend classes at a local White school.

Throughout Hidden Figures, we see that even when the main characters are trying to do good, they’re often met with suspicion and rejection. When opportunities appear the rules and requirements change, adding obstacles that are intended to limit their opportunities for advancement. Segregation permeates even the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

The advanced math classes that Mary needs are only available at White Only schools. I can understand the requirement for an adult to get clearance for taking classes with high school students. But, if the segregated system was (at least on the surface) supposed to be separate but equal why aren’t these classes being offered to high school students at the local Black schools? Why did Katherine and her family have to move so that she could even attend a high school?

It’s telling that when Mary goes to court to petition to take classes at a segregated school the “colored section” is at the back of the courtroom. The books that Dorothy needs to learn about computers and programming languages aren’t available in the “colored section” of the library. There is a “colored section” of the library. And no, not a section about Black literature or Black history. But a section for Black people in the library as we are not allowed to walk through or attempt to read books from other sections of the library or you will be thrown out. Pay taxes just like everyone else which helps to support the library but don’t expect to have equal access to its resources.

To make matters worse, the women also experience gender discrimination in their personal lives. They not only have to push against the limitations placed on them at NASA due to their race but also have to push against low expectations in their personal lives based on their gender.

Mary’s husband, Levi, means well but is a bit of a killjoy who pours water on her aspirations of being an engineer out of fear. Ironically, he is a civil rights activist but doesn’t initially see what his wife pushing through boundaries to become an engineer could mean to the movement. He recognizes the importance of Black people fighting for their civil rights but fails to acknowledge how the prejudice against his wife’s race AND gender also place limitations on her life.

Likewise, Katherine who is a widow with three daughters at home, has a similar experience when she first meets Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Mary and Dorothy conspire to fix the two up during their first meeting at a church picnic. After exchanging pleasantries and small talk the topic of the NASA space program comes up. When Katherine shares a bit about her job at NASA, Jim patronizingly chuckles and expresses disbelief at women’s math skills. This a major disappointment for Katherine who immediately shuts down and ends the conversation.

Fortunately, neither man allows pride to make him cling to his outdated beliefs. They take the time to do some soul searching which results in them recognizing the errors of their ways. When they approach the topic with the women again, they not only apologize but also share their feelings while allowing Katherine and Mary the space to express their own thoughts. Once they move past these disagreements, they become major supporters of the women’s efforts to succeed at work.

And an issue that I applaud Hidden Figures for addressing is that the people who doubt these women are not just White. Likewise, the people who work against and make these women feel unwelcome are not just men. A woman who seems to be Harrison’s assistant is rather snooty towards Katherine. And who somehow views herself as not being racist but rather an ally relishes the setbacks that Dorothy experiences and speaks to her in a condescending tone.

Throughout Hidden Figures I cheered and applauded their triumphs over difficulties but was annoyed that they had to waste time fighting these unnecessary battles. And then after everything they’d done and the difference they made they were still the last to be hired and the first to be fired. There’s a sense of being disposable. All of that work saving the day when everything is down to the wire only to be let go.

I’m good at math with regards to finance and analytics but for the life of me, I never understood graphing inequalities in school or under what circumstances I would need to create a parabola. So when I saw Katherine calculate a parabola I was amazed. What these women are able to do with math and engineering is amazing. It’s especially admirable because they accomplished all of this while also navigating various obstacles and petty distractions.

Really take the time to consider that Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were able to figure out these complex calculations and problems that had stumped all of these men. These men didn’t have to deal with information being redacted or having co-workers work against them. Yet, they couldn’t figure it out. And then there is Katherine who was raised in a community where under different circumstances her education would have ended before high school. Who had to move to continue receiving a basic level of education (which she blew through). Who was shuffled around NASA and made to feel both unwanted and replaceable. But ultimately, they outshined everyone else when it was time to show and prove.

If ever there was a film about having to work 10 times harder as a Black person just to be deemed competent Hidden Figures is it. Hidden Figures is a good movie for adults but I think it’s a great movie for kids. It’s not a happy-go-lucky Disney movie. But if your kids can watch Mufasa and Bambi’s mother die, this should be fine. It might spark an interest in STEM fields for some kids but if it doesn’t that’s ok. I think the larger message of standing up for and believing in yourself is far more important. And while we’ve come a long way I think Black men and women in the working world will nod their heads knowingly and some moments in the film.

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