Why you still need to see “Hidden Figures”

With a growing number of women pursuing careers in technology and the push for more diversity at tech companies dominated by white and Asian males, “Hidden Figures” couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction novel about a group of African American women who calculated the mathematical data needed to launch NASA’s space missions successfully, the film is an inspiring, historical account that reflects on the many roadblocks women continue to face in the male-dominated tech world.

My mom and I were so excited to see this movie as we both thought, “FINALLY a story – a true story at that – where black women aren’t portrayed as angry, a ‘mammy’ or a battered woman.” But what also popped into my head was why hadn’t I heard of these historical figures prior to this movie coming out? Why wasn’t I taught this in school?

I went through so many emotions while watching these women in awe: excitement, pride, anger, happiness, sadness.

“Hidden Figures” tells the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who each experience difficult work situations at NASA during racial segregation in 1961.

The trio were members of the West Area Computing Group at the Langley Research Center of NASA in Virginia as “computers” – when people made calculations instead of a machine – where they were subjected to Virginia’s segregation laws. This not only included major prejudice, but required them to use separate facilities from their white counterparts. But despite various trials and tribulations, these women were eventually able to accelerate in their careers.

One thing I enjoyed seeing were slight semblances of attitude changes towards the trio from their white coworkers.

A consistent scene in the movie showed Katherine constantly having to race to the restroom, which was half a mile away from her desk, with her work assignments in hand in an attempt to complete them while being clearly preoccupied.

After wondering why she would be gone for 45 minutes periodically during the day, her supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), asks Katherine where she is going for so long everyday. Katherine who is soaked from sprinting in the rain sternly explains to her supervisor that she has to travel to use the “colored” restroom because there isn’t one in their building. In turn, Harrison removes the “colored” restroom signs, adding, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

This was the beginning of institutionalized change.

Another aspect that stood out, and honestly amused me, was Paul Stafford’s (Jim Parsons) childish ill-will towards Katherine which included various “stank faces” (like the ones you’d see him make in The Big Bang Theory). He gave Katherine a hard time throughout the entire movie by refusing to give her credit for her accomplishments. However, after her heroic intervention of correcting the new computer systems’ mathematical errors minutes before Alan Shephard’s space launch, Paul finally shows Katherine respect by bringing her a cup of coffee.

Photo by Emily Creighton
Photo by Emily Creighton

A small, yet significant gesture which represented the shifting racial dynamics of the time period.

But the scene that put the icing on the cake for me was amid an awkward encounter in the restroom between Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), Dorothy’s supervisor, and Dorothy herself. Vivian, who always showed clear indifference towards her black coworkers, says to Dorothy: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” to which Dorothy cleverly responds with, “I know you probably believe that.”

Acknowledgement of one’s prejudice is the first step towards combating racism.

I admired how with every step these women took in their careers, they uplifted one another and always looked out for their families. They knew how important it was as black women working in the segregated South to be resilient and always remain dignified. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary worked hard regardless of what tasks were thrown at them and stayed true to NASA’s mission which was to get the United States into space first.

As someone who is learning web development on my own and have at times struggled to grasp the concepts of programming, seeing Dorothy Vaughan teach herself a programming language that was new to even the employees of NASA motivates me to keep pushing through. Seeing Katherine Johnson solve complicated math problems that took a man to the moon lessened the fear I had of learning programming languages that sometimes require math.

Photo by Emily Creighton
Photo by Emily Creighton

And seeing Mary Jackson petition the City of Hampton to attend classes at an all-white university, graduate and become the first black female engineer at NASA gives me the courage to further pursue my career path as web developer, even if I might be one of few who look like me in an office.

Positive representation is important, especially for those who often don’t see these images of themselves in the media. “Hidden Figures” provides that needed spark for women and girls, letting them know they can accomplish great things regardless of their color or gender.

Although, I was bothered (and slightly still am) by the fact these women were truly hidden figures from my history classes, I’m nevertheless glad to see the stories of these women finally be revealed now. And, I encourage everyone of every race and gender to see this movie so they too can see that “genius has no race, strength has no gender, [and] courage has no limit.”

Learn how you can see the film for free this weekend here!

Featured image by Emily Creighton