I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.
Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.
The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.
NASA’s “Colored Computers”
Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.
Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.
In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.
The Evils of Segregation
The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:
- coloured drinking fountains,
- coloured waiting rooms,
- coloured toilets,
- coloured canteens
- coloured offices,
- coloured counters in cafes and shops,
- and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.
This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!
Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.
The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.
NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.
The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.
Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film. One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.
She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:
“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”
Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.
NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.
When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection) is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.
Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.
Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.
We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.
Margot Lee Shetterly
There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.
Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.
Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.
Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.
- October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
- November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
- April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)
The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”
Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
An Yuri went up in the air
Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air
Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair
When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair
This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.
The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing Great Britain, 2013.
Praise Long Overdue
Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.
Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.
This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.
I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…