Watch enough movies about the space race and you’ll be convinced that Americans got off the planet and ultimately to the moon through the efforts of a lot of nerdy white guys with flat-top haircuts. It took way too long for the USA to get men and women of different ethnic and racial backgrounds into spaceships, but it turns out that behind the scenes, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were powered by a lot more than just those nerdy guys.
Based on the book of the same name, the movie Hidden Figures reveals the vital role that a group of black women played in the history of America’s journey into space. It focuses on three women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
The space race itself started when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the first country to successfully put anything into orbit. The film effectively begins just after that, when the nascent National Aeronautic and Space Administration was struggling with plans to put a man into space. To everyone’s surprise, the Reds won again, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin zipped around the planet and landed successfully back on Earth while NASA was still staring at its drawing board.
Because it worked on the very cutting edge of technology, NASA often had more budget than know how, a point dramatically highlighted in the film when IBM installs a room-size computer at NASA and no-one knows how to actually use it.
Enter Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who not only supervised an all-black, all female staff known as West Computing at NASA, but was also the only person who figured out how to work with the massive IBM system. In the film, Vaughan tirelessly fights for the rights of her staff and continually spars with white supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) over “colored” bathrooms, equal pay, equal promotional opportunities and more.
But Vaughan isn’t alone. On her staff are two other brilliant women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Johnson’s one of the most brilliant mathematicians at NASA and while there are all too many male employees who see her as inferior both because she’s black and a woman, she perseveres and is recognized through her work. Jackson had the mind of a superb flight engineer but the double handicap of being female and black too. With the encouragement of Polish engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), she applies to the engineering program and becomes the first female black engineer in the United States.
As history shows, NASA gets astronaut Alan B. Shepard into space in Freedom 7, but it’s really John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury Seven team that propel us forward. Glenn became the first American to circle the globe, in the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule, on February 20, 1962.
Before he would climb into the Friendship 7 capsule, however, John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) insisted that Johnson double-check all the calculations from the IBM computer to ensure that he could achieve orbital velocity, establish a safe orbit and then return to Earth. She did, corrected some problems, and Glenn made his historic flight.
And Jackson? It was the early 1960’s and discrimination was institutional, legal and widely supported. In fact, she had to petition the courts to get special permission to attend engineering classes at a segregated whites-only school to quality for the NASA engineering program.
Three amazing women, three stories of persistence, and a movie that looks at both institutional and cultural racism of the 1960’s without a heavy hand. There are, however, nods to the Civil Rights Movement — it would be impossible to ignore it — and a focus on some of the idiotic issues that came up due to the so-called ‘separate but equal’ policies that NASA enforced during the early 1960’s.
In fact, one of the more stirring – albeit likely fictionalized – moments in the film involves Space Task Group Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) solving the constant problem of Johnson being forced to run to another building to use the “colored bathroom”.
The performances in the film are very good, the sets and recreation of the period is convincing, including the use of historic clips (notably JFK’s stirring “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech) and all the technical details and mathematics have a sense of verisimilitude that makes the film seem at times to almost be a documentary.
But it’s Costner’s scene with the bathrooms that highlights one of the fundamental problems with Hidden Figures: trying to identify what really happened and what has been dramatized to make the movie work.
Still, like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, this is a film that every space enthusiast should watch. And the rest of you who still think it was just nerdy white guys who got us onto the moon? You’ll be enlightened by Hidden Figures. And that’s a really good thing.