Hidden Figures and Obscured History

We saw Hidden Figures last weekend and enjoyed this excellent movie thoroughly. It communicates a sense of time and place, culture and challenge, while telling the story of three women who overcame tremendous odds to accomplish great things. What could be bad?

Difficult Questions for Bored Girls

We saw Hidden Figures last weekend and enjoyed thoroughly. It communicates a sense of time and place, culture and challenge, while telling the story of three women who overcame tremendous odds to accomplish great things. What could be bad?As we were walking out of the theater, three teenage girls behind us commented that the movie was boring. One of them said she had fallen asleep. I wanted to turn and ask the girls exactly what had bored them. Was it the way these black, female mathematicians overcame the combined obstacles of gender and race? Was it learning exactly how tenuous the U.S. space program was when the American people put their faith and trust in people we thought were experts?

You’ve heard the phrase, “It’s not rocket science.” That’s because we believed that putting astronauts in orbit and then on the moon was the most difficult and complicated of scientific endeavors. If only we had known then that NASA was calculating orbit trajectories by hand with a pencil or on a chalkboard. And that Astronaut John Glenn trusted his life to a woman who wasn’t allowed to drink from the office coffee pot.

Perhaps those girls took it for granted that women can do anything they want and found it boring to learn that not so very long ago we could not. After all, it’s soooo boring to see a woman’s work being taken for granted at best and appropriated by a man at worst.

Closed Classrooms

Knowing they can go to college and study whatever discipline they like, the girls might not have been aware that some professions—engineering among them—were once closed to women. They could not possibly know what it’s like to, like Mary Jackson, walk into a room filled with men who stare at you like you’re a freak of nature because you want to study a discipline they have reserved for  themselves. Or to be the only black person in room filled with white people who have excluded you from the building—until a court order opens the door.

Maybe it was the happy ending that put one of them to sleep. After all, John Glenn went up in Friendship 7 and came down again safely. No action hero came to the rescue and no superhero saved the capsule from a fiery landing. Oh, wait, a superhero did—but she was named Katherine G. Johnson and she wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing a spandex suit.

Dorothy Vaughan's team takes over NASA's IBM mainframe

Dorothy Vaughan’s team takes over NASA’s IBM mainframe

With more power on their iPhones that existed in NASA’s new IBM 3070 mainframe in the sixties, the girls might not have understood the difficulty of the challenge facing by Dorothy Vaughan’s team of female “computers” as they learned Fortran and taught themselves to make the room-sized beast of a machine work the way it was supposed to.

No Confrontation

I wanted to ask them these questions but I did not. I could just imagine their reaction at being confronted by a grandmother asking them to really think about what they had just seen. After all, it’s not their fault if they don’t know history. They might have learned the basics  of the Space Race in school, although I’m not really sure, but the basics would not have covered this story.

Even those of us who watched on black-and-white TVs as the astronauts went up did not know about Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan until this movie came out.

And those of us who watched on black-and-white TVs as the astronauts went up did not know about Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn until this movie came out.

Katherine G. Johnson (L0, Mary Jackson (C) Dorothy Vaughan (R)

Hidden Figures is a play on words. Cultural blindness hid these three historical figures from us for decades. Assumptions about competence and control hid how numbers were crunched by hand and how math shifted and changed as the team found answers to questions that had never before been asked.

Hidden Figures and a New Perspective

I recommend Hidden Figures to every thinking person who enjoys seeing for the first time a new perspective on an important part of American history. Or if you just enjoy, as I do, movies about the triumph of the human spirit.

And speaking of triumph, Hidden Figures has so far grossed  $119,491,683 over seven weeks on a production budget of $25 million. That should prove to Hollywood that a movie with three female stars—and black ones at that—can make real money. The Academy Award nomination is icing the on the cake.

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