NASA’s Hidden Figures

By Gillian Croft, 2016 Best Screenplay Golden Palm Winner, Square Bum Writers Group

“Yes, they let women do some things at NASA. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” #HiddenFigures

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate women and their achievements in shaping families, history, and society. Many courageous women throughout history have attained great accomplishments despite prejudice, discrimination, or abuse, providing strength to the vulnerable and to society alongside their struggle for equality.

These themes of strength and courage are woven through the movie Hidden Figures, inspired by the real-life stories of three black women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, notable due to their monumental contributions to the NASA Space Program in the 1960’s and beyond. Katherine Johnson, a physicist and research mathematician, is introduced as a gifted child, remarkable for her ability to manipulate numbers in her head. Due to the lack of public schools for blacks in Greenbriar County, her parents moved many miles each year for her to complete high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, where she was subsequently admitted to college at the age of fourteen.

Katherine is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, who does a sympathetic job of bringing the finer points of the script to life, particularly the under-stated way in which Katherine responds to discrimination on an interpersonal level. Katherine, on a “temporary” assignment, runs madly through NASA with file folders in hand, trying to reach the “Coloureds Only” bathroom before her extended “breaks” are noticed.   It’s maddening to watch her workmates – mostly men and white – assume that her absence is due to frivolous reasons, rather than the simple fact that the bathroom is a half mile walk across the complex. In a pivotal scene, painful because the writer staged the showdown in a room full of white men, Katherine finally explodes in response to her supervisor Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) incognizant censure, and explains to him that she’s merely been to the washroom. The beauty of this scene is that it not only shows Katherine’s frustration at a system of white privilege, but also highlights Harrison’s emerging realization of the daily challenges Katherine faces as a black woman in a “Jim Crow” world.

Hidden Figures has been criticized by some as a “feel-good” story that takes liberties with composite characters, situations and on-the-nose dialogue. However, many of the scenes are an accurate portrayal of life for black women in the 60’s. The writer realistically shows the contrast between the values of these women – that humans of all color are equal – and what they believe is expedient for the protection of themselves and their families. We are presented with powerful real-life footage of Martin Luther King challenging the establishment, juxtaposed by a scene where Dorothy – who truly believes in equality for blacks – guides her children away from a civil-rights protest in order to “protect” them. This beautifully portrays that these women are not only black, but also mothers. And really, this is why Hidden Figures shines – it’s not merely a story about smart women heroes, but women whose heroism embraces having to go home exhausted at the end of the day, sorting out fights, tucking their kids into bed, and making sure they’re eating healthy foods at their church potluck.

Having heard that she and her colleagues were soon to be replaced by an IBM, Dorothy decides to teach the rest of her West Wing women programming language. We cheer when Dorothy “beats” the establishment by determinedly lifting a Fortran programming book from the “white section” at the library, and justifying to her children that the book “belongs” to her as a taxpayer. Dorothy’s foresight in gaining specialized and timely knowledge of computers ultimately results in her promotion as NASA’s first black woman supervisor.

Mary, likewise, challenges the status quo, deciding to become the first black woman engineer at NASA. Unfortunately, under “Jim Crow” laws, she is denied access to the courses she needs in order to be promoted. While she laments that “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line”, her supervisor Zielinski, a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust, reminds her that, “We are living the impossible.” Her husband, Levi, a civil-rights activist, berates Mary for “playing the fool,” for “neglecting” her children, and for not realizing that freedom has to be taken by force. This is followed by a brilliant scene where Mary, composed and courageous, calmly asks a Virginia judge for the right to take evening classes in a “white” school, insisting that,“I have no choice but to be the first, which I can’t do without you sir.” Thus, in her own self-assured way, she wins the opportunity to complete her education and earn her promotion.

Many of the amazing accomplishments of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are shown in an understated way. Katherine is often shown from afar, being watched while she stands on a ladder and works out calculations and trajectories. These scenes are not only about her brilliant mind, but also about how she is deferentially perceived by those around her – with growing appreciation by her supervisor, Harrison, and with resentment by her white colleague Paul Stafford, who continues to insist that her name does not go on reports that she’s co-authored.

There are many heart-wrenching scenes in this movie, but none more so than the scenes following Katherine’s indispensable effort to put astronaut Alan Shepherd into orbit. When Katherine works out the calculations and trajectories, ensuring the safe launch of the first American into space, she is then told that she is no longer “needed” and is sent back to the West Wing to do routine number crunching. Having been allowed to use one’s intellect and soar, these series of scenes allow one to fully feel Katherine’s grief as she returns to a “prison” of mundanity. One is left wondering how someone so brilliant can survive a setback of such soul-wrenching magnitude. Although I would have liked to have seen more of Katherine’s voice in these scenes, the way in which they naturally played out was consistent with the voice of the writer, Theodore Melfi, throughout the adapted screenplay.

Katherine was ultimately honored by astronaut John Glenn, who refused to go into space until “the girl” had doubled checked the computer’s calculations, thereby cementing her as one of the great history makers of the space age and helping to ensure her future in the American Space Program.

Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s characters resonate with brilliance and intellect in an era that discriminated not only against people of colour, but also against women. Despite the prejudices they faced, these women had a sense of their own worth. Beautifully put by Katherine, “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts – it’s because we wear glasses!” As female characters these three black women are not only strong heroes worthy of acknowledgement on International Women’s Day, but are also remarkable for their wisdom and courage in the face of great challenges.