Some sixty years ago three women — all Black — made history, powering NASA’s world-leading work. The saga of mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson first inspired Black writer and inspirational speaker Margot Lee Shetterly to write her book Hidden Figures.
It later inspired the movie of the same name released in January, some five years ago. Shetterly’s father had been a research scientist at NASA Langley and her mother a professor at Hampton University, Virginia.
Key to success
The movie is a dramatised story of the women whose groundbreaking brilliance in mathematics, computer programming and aeronautical engineering was critical to America’s space mission.
Their pioneering legacy in NASA holds special significance as Jessica Watkins is set to be the first Black woman assigned to fly to space as a Mission Specialist on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station, scheduled to launch in 2022.
As the world marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day and mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier this January, marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science in February and Women’s History Month all March, it’s worth revisiting the lessons Hidden Figures (now on Disney+Hotstar) holds for us.
Note: Spoilers ahead — so, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, do.
Hidden Figures is desirable viewing for all, not just Black, women tackling oppression, of any kind. It’s essential viewing for women who feel they’re not being heard, not being heard enough. It’s indispensable viewing for women who succumb, stay silent and accept sexism or racism as inevitable.
Witness that scene when mathematician Katherine Johnson (played brilliantly by Taraji Henson) argues against men-only meetings at NASA Langley, the oldest of NASA’s field centers.
Male executive: There is no protocol for women attending.
Johnson: There is no protocol for a man circling the earth either… sir.
Yes, Hampton powered some of NASA’s best, well before Houston did.
Some critics attacked the film for historical inaccuracy, exaggeration and a White-male saviour motif. Didn’t the intensity of racism or sexism portrayed predate the time those women worked at NASA? Didn’t it make the Black female characters and some White male characters seem needlessly heroic, in ways that they weren’t?
Points well made, perhaps, about a documentary that claims to mirror real life. But they’re sort of missing the point about filmmaking that lives and dies on storytelling. In this sense Hidden Figures actually reveals a lot.
Black women did endure these hardships at some point. Look up the history books or knock yourself out googling to check if these were in the 1950s, 60s or in some other era. But these blockades to honest, hard-working, intelligent women were real. They included orchestrated racial segregation and suppression in every sphere, from bathrooms to buses. And all-too-real blocks to career progression.
The point isn’t about whether the real-life trio experienced all that was shown on screen but whether real-life women “like them” faced hurdles “like those”. That’s where the movie scores. That’s what makes the script so special.
Black women who demanded protection of their rights were hidden in many ways. Some weren’t heard by their families, others weren’t seen by their peers and bosses. Yet they pressed on. How? By hearing their own voice and answering its call. By seeing themselves as successes. By being inspired by their own defiant projection of themselves, as winners.
Many Black women did just that, or they wouldn’t have won the victories they did in the mid and late 20th century. And it is they who paved the way for those who followed them, against the odds, into positions of influence — Tarana Burke, Viola Davis, Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker.
If anything, Hidden Figures celebrates women in an area where their excellence is rarely marked — science, engineering and technology — complementing more frequent celebrations of their success in sport, public policy, music, literature, the arts and entertainment.
Hidden Figures asks questions of women making excuses for their silence — I was too young, too ignorant, too powerless, I didn’t know it was harassment. What sort of woman do you want to be? It shows that for every woman — Black or not — who is meek, there’s another who is gutsy.
For every woman who wants to keep a sister down, there are two who will make sacrifices to see her climb. For two women who are spiteful and envious, there are three who are generous and giving. They’re stronger together. But they’re strong even when forced to act alone.
Insecure men? They can, and usually will, express the full range of responses from obstructive to bloody-minded to manipulative to reluctantly helpful. Hidden Figures asks these men questions too. What sort of a man do you want to be? What sort of a husband, partner, colleague do you want to continue to be?
Remember the scene where aerospace engineer Mary Jackson (played by a spunky Janelle Monae) argues her case before a White male judge?
Jackson: Your Honour, you of all people should understand the importance of being first… you were the first in your family to serve in the Armed Forces, US Navy, the first to attend university… I plan on being an engineer at NASA.
Then achingly but spiritedly, Jackson goes on —
But I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-White High School. And I can’t change the colour of my skin. So I have no choice but to be the first. Which I can’t do without you, sir. Your Honour, out of all the cases you’re gonna hear today which one is gonna matter a hundred years from now, which one is gonna make you the first?
Frankly, Jackson had a choice. To stay silent. Or speak up. And she chose well.
Screenwriter Allison Schroeder and screenwriter-director Theodore Melfi offered hints about the movie’s magic, in a 2017 piece, “Hidden Figures: A mathematical juggling act” in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
“Producer Donna Gigliotti and Executive Producer Renee Witt were looking for a female writer… I freaked out because I grew up by Cape Canaveral and my grandmother was a computer programmer there, my grandfather was an engineer on the Mercury capsule and I interned there for four years.”
“I felt like a lot of Allison’s draft was very inside NASA and I wanted to get out of NASA for a little bit. I dug into the women’s home lives a lot more and then I also dug into the space of it all to make the space bigger and more dramatic. To be crude about it, the script has a female touch and a male touch to it.”
Schroeder had heard that what many people liked most about the movie was that it wasn’t about “fire hoses, dogs on chains and lynchings or big moments. It was the smaller everyday discriminations of racism and sexism… these women… went to the same church, the same barbeques, the same picnics, and the same social events. They had a real bond and were close.”
Hidden Figures shows us that there is “courage” in numbers, in unity, in community. It shows us something else too. 1960s NASA was a world unto itself. An enclave set apart that wrote and rewrote its own rules. Sure, these women had each other. But when they had to stand up for themselves, they had to stand up as individuals first.
Not always as a comfortable and cozy collective. The collective is welcome and fuels individual strength and resolve. But when they had to stand up, they did so first alone and only second, as a collective. They had to stand up for themselves, by themselves. To petition. To protest. To persist.
Silent women? They have their reasons — fear of losing a job, fear of destroying a dream career, fear of denied promotions, fear of stagnant pay, fear of the sheer futility of speaking up in a world where the sun rises with men and sets with men.
Hidden Figures elegantly suggests that progress lies not in staying silent or excusing silence, but in speaking up. Progress lies in recognising that there is a choice, even when others try to convince you that there isn’t. Progress lies in movement. Sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes this way and that, but never static.
Progress, of any kind, lies in a deep, unspectacular commitment to dissent. Dissent that’s collective and pugnaciously public is twice as powerful as one marked by silent suffering solitude.
Jessica Watkins’ landmark trip to space pays homage to hidden figures who came before her. If not for them, Watkins and her peers would have stayed hidden. But Watkins also proudly speaks of a newer, bolder, wiser NASA. One that holds out the promise to those coming after her, thanks to her and her peers breaking barriers everywhere every year, that no woman — Black or not — has cause to stay hidden any longer.