Katherine Coleman Johnson
Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (L-R)
HIDDEN FIGURES B-
USA (127 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Theodore Melfi Official site
We all get there together or we don’t get there at all.
—Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)
While the film is a unique blend of space and race, with progress coming on both fronts, Melfi’s Disneyized direction couldn’t be more safe, conventional, and comfortably mainstream, where you couldn’t possibly make a less confrontational Civil Rights movie, as it’s more about capturing the look of the era, with stunned expressions on the faces of conservative white men forced to work alongside black women in flowery outfits, wearing the required heels, and of course, the glasses, where it’s the kind of film that intentionally makes white people comfortable while watching a period of ugly history that seemingly slipped under their doorstep one night and was somehow different the next morning. Fairly easy to digest 50 years after the fact, often using humor to make a point, such as making a running joke out of Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), the only black person in the room of white physicists, having to run a half mile in her heels, carrying a pile of notebooks in her arms that she’s ordered to review, actually checking the work of the smug white professionals, in search of the only “colored” bathroom on the premises, a sequence absurdly repeated several times, once in a downpour of rain, which leads to the scene of the film when her clueless boss (Kevin Costner) wonders why she disappears for long stretches of time, as she unloads all her pent-up frustrations in a single outburst, a hair-raising scene to be sure. Still, with protest marches seen off in the distance, or viewed at home on television, the film is exquisitely civil, even while being uncivil, as Kristen Dunst, always addressed as Mrs. Mitchell, plays the white supervisor of Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), who in turn is always called by her first name, and couldn’t be more polite each time Mitchell denies her request to be promoted to the vacant supervisory position, a job she’s already performing, as she is in charge of a pool of female workers but receives no additional pay. Again, using humor, Dorothy gets back at being denied access to the needed books in the “white” section of the library by simply stealing the book, explaining to her shocked daughter, “I pay my taxes for this library just like everybody else!” Janelle Monáe, shockingly good, as she was in Moonlight (2016), plays a sophisticated but brash-mouthed Mary, who has taken all the courses and compiled the needed knowledge to be recognized as an engineer, but she is denied the position, as the State of Virginia doesn’t recognize one of the required courses, as she took the “colored” class, as she was excluded from taking the “white” class. Having to go the extra mile to earn the same worth is the predominate theme of the film, simultaneously combining the plight of women and minorities, which is just as relevant today, where conveniently they all achieve what they were originally denied. But the special bond between the three women makes this a sisterhood is powerful movie, and while the performances are strong, some of the charisma is achieved (especially from Mary) by utilizing contemporary attitides and language in a completely different historical era, where it’s easy to slide into sassy-mouthed black caricatures, once again feeding into the typical Hollywood stereotypes.
Like most Hollywood dramas, there is an element of exaggeration and overkill in the historical narrative that would be better served without the supposed Hollywood hype, which accentuates filtered light entertainment, often at the expense of enlightenment and historical accuracy. Adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s recent book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the book focuses on young black women who spent their entire careers working at NASA, including Katherine Goble Johnson, a genius mathematician who enrolled in high school when she was ten, becoming a college graduate by 18, which is particularly impressive because this achievement came during an era when a significant number of blacks quit school after 8th grade, eventually becoming a NASA section chief who calculated the trajectory for the moon landing, as well as the Shepard and Glenn flights, also Mary Jackson, one of the first black women to become an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who was the first black manager at NASA. Beginning in 1935, NASA’s predecessor, NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, women were considered “computers,” as they were female mathematicians who literally computed the numbers before the introduction of electronic computers into the space program. When FDR signed an executive order in 1941 desegregating the defense industry, this paved the way for a new generation of black female mathematicians to work in the space industry, recruiting black women as temporary workers in support of an all-male flight research team. Shetterly’s father was a 40-year veteran of the Langley Research Center, the oldest of NASA’s field centers located in Hampton, Virginia, who used to tell her stories about the black female “computers” who created an uproar in the department, as the men couldn’t believe women were capable of such rigorous mathematical calculations, yet many of the women who were hired held master’s degrees, which is all the more remarkable because this happened in the Jim Crow era when blacks went to substandard schools and were barred from the more challenging books in the “white” libraries. While this film rightly honors their storied achievements, with NASA naming a building in her honor at Langley in May 2016, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (NASA Facility Dedicated to Mathematician Katherine Johnson), coming on the 55th anniversary of the first American spaceflight by astronaut Alan Shepard, whose suborbital trajectory Johnson calculated during her time working at Langley, and President Obama awarding Johnson the Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest civilian honor, it does so with a formulaic, heartwarming Hollywood style that is the textbook definition of a feel-good movie.
As Shetterly points out in her book, “In the 1930’s, just over a hundred women worked as professional mathematicians…(where) Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees. The odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.” In contrast, the Soviet Union openly encouraged women to pursue engineering careers, which helped them get a leg up on America during the Space Race of the 50’s and 60’s, launching the first Sputnik satellite on October 1957, and the first man (Yuri Gagarin) to complete an orbit of the Earth on April 1961. What the films shows is that the black female mathematicians were stymied by outdated social regulations, where men and women worked separately, while blacks could only work in the “colored” section, as the section for whites remained off limits, relegated to “colored” rest rooms and drinking fountains. When two of the black women exhibited skills enough to be brought over to work first of all with white men at NASA, they were not only the only women, but as the lone blacks, they were not allowed to drink out of the same cups or coffee container, and had to make a half mile trip to use the “colored” rest room. Today this seems like ancient history, but as the superb Ken Burns documentary Jackie Robinson (2016) points out, Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, took the hateful insults, racial slurs, death threats and abuse and made it just a little bit easier for the next person of color to become the “first” or second in their school or workplace. What this film suggests is that even a decade later, it still took a great deal of time and personal frustration, as progress is slow in coming, as it was a time when women got little credit for their work and weren’t allowed to co-author reports, instead they had to work anonymously in large groups, as none were allowed to be singled out for their excellence. It should also be pointed out that the United States had a track record of failures in their unmanned Atlas space launch attempts, with one ending in a spectacular fireball with the capsule still attached. This was not exactly a confidence booster for the original Mercury Seven astronauts announced by NASA on October 7, 1958, yet it’s staggering to consider the progress made in just three years to project Alan Shepard into space in May 1961, while a year later John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962. While Americans may remember the room of men in white shirts and crewcuts lining the room at Mission Control in Houston, manning their computers, communicating with the astronauts in mid-flight, where many viewed them as the best and brightest in the nation, little was made of those behind the scenes working dutifully at the research facilities, challenging the antiquated perception of mathematicians as only white males, where this film finally gives them their due.