In the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, the effort to put a man into orbit was the most technical challenge that American science had faced, surpassing even the Manhattan Project and the cryptologic efforts at Bletchley Park during World War II. Controls would have to go off precisely on schedule, so the planning and timing had to be meticulous since remote operation was out of the question. The tolerances of the Mercury capsule had to be some of the most stringent ever, and making it work would push engineering to its limits. All of this required loads of calculation, and that meant rows and rows of computers.
But “computers” didn’t mean the same thing then as we’re familiar with now. A computer was a person who ran calculations, and usually a woman at that. It was akin to secretarial work. If you were a woman who had the mathematical talent, being a computer at a place like NASA’s Langley Research Center was among the best jobs you could hope for. Especially if you were a black woman, like the ones featured in Hidden Figures.
The film is built around a typical story of triumph over racial adversity, focused mainly on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). Identified quickly from the pool of “colored computers” as one of the best, with essential skills in analytic geometry, she was pulled into the flight mechanics division. Subject to the expected sorts of discrimination — a segregated percolator, a half-mile walk back to the nearest colored women’s restroom, and the disdain of her white male colleagues exemplified by Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) — she rises above it with strength and determination to prove her worth. She wins the respect of John Glenn (Glen Powell), and gains a defender in director Al Harrison, the latest of Kevin Costner’s recent series of roles as “white father figures too busy to be racist” (see also: Black or White and McFarland, USA).
This all plays out more or less as expected. The technical material is a nice touch, and the concepts ring true enough to my math background, though I’ll have to ask my actual rocket scientist friend what she thinks after the movie comes out. But what really gets Hidden Figures off the ground are the side stories, showing the breadth of talent that came out of the colored computer pool and expressed itself in different ways.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) worked on the capsule engineering team under Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), and wanted to become an engineer herself, but it required additional coursework beyond her college degree. Studying at the University of Virginia was too far to travel, and the local high school that held night classes was segregated, which brings in the prospect of an abbreviated court sequence to break down that particular barrier.
But, to me, the most interesting subplot is the story of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who had been working as the unofficial supervisor of the colored computer pool for years without the title of pay bump to go with it. While running files back to her own passive-aggressive supervisor, Vivian Jackson (Kirsten Dunst), she notices the new electronic computer being installed by IBM. Sensing the threat to her group, she quickly decides that they need to make themselves indispensable. She learns FORTRAN and teaches it to the rest of the office, so when the new computer needs operators, they can be right there to take over. Johnson and Jackson may have been brilliant and helped erode prejudices, but Vaughan had the prescience to carve out a space for a whole team of women of color, not just proving them equal to the white men around them, but getting them ready to do what nobody else was prepared for at the time.
If there’s any complaint to be made about Hidden Figures, it’s that it plays things too nice, never challenging the audience much. There’s the usual shuffling of circumstances to simplify the timeline, for which I can hardly blame writer Allison Schroder and sophomore writer/director Theodore Melfi. All the white figures in the story — other than Glenn, obviously — seem to be either fictionalized or composite, which neatly avoids holding any real person’s feet to the fire. And one of the most iconic, crowd-pleasing scenes, where Harrison bashes down the “colored women” restroom sign with a crowbar, makes a lot more emotional sense than logical, when the real problem is the “white women” signs everywhere else on the campus.
But these are ultimately nits to pick. The real point is not to impose a justifiable penance, but to honor the achievements of these talented women who rarely got the respect or recognition they were due. Keeping it simple and genial can draw in the biggest crowd possible, and offer them up as role models for a new generation to aspire to.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.