‘Hidden Figures’ is Not a Feel Good Tale; It’s News

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Price Center Theater was packed. There were people standing in the back of the theater because there were not enough seats.

I turned to the person seated on my right and asked, “When was the last time you saw a film with three black women playing lead roles in a film?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever…” responded Ismar Rodriguez, a first year from Revelle College.

Everyone was excited to see the film that finally explored the life of black women in STEM: Hidden Figures.

This was not the typical UCSD movie screening. The Moonlight showing just a few weeks prior was at half Price Center Theater’s capacity. This was different.

The event was hosted by the Women’s Center at UCSD with special guests Dr. Jedidah Isler and Dr. Yvonne Cagle. As Dr. Jedidah Isler, phenomenal, award-winning, black woman astrophysicist, took the stage, a sense of awe filled the air. We all held our breaths, waiting for words of empowerment or courage. Instead, and for the better, she provided thought provoking questions that transformed the basic thoughts that we might have had about the film.

“How y’all doing?” she started. We all chuckled, revived by her energy. “To see a book written by a black woman turned into a film nominated at the Oscars? Too much truth people, too much truth.” She asked us to first analyze the experience of the black womanhood with discrimination, disappointment, and rejection, and then question how it relates to our own experiences.

The film Hidden Figures is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. If you have not already read it, do so. This is pure historical nonfiction that does not have the glamour of Hollywood to appease any guilt. It tells the tale of Katherine Johnson (née Goble), Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three intelligent women who lived through the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, second wave feminism, the drug war against communities of color, Vietnam, and so much more. The mere fact that they lived through these times of true terror for black women is a success in its own. But they did more than live; they thrived. They contributed to the scientific renaissance of the United States, of course with limited acknowledgement.

The film did not truly highlight the extent to which black women had to fight for their freedom. Dr. Isler asked us to identify and analyze the structural and institutional barriers that play a part in this movie. The answer is not enough. She also asked us to consider whether we were watching history or watching the news, and the sad truth is that this could have aired on your local NPR station just last week and we would not have been able to spot the difference.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Here is where the spoilers come in (although it is quite difficult to spoil history).

There is one scene that repeats over and over in the film: Katherine Johnson typing up the cover of a report she is supposed to submit for the engineers she worked under. This scene appears three times throughout the film; each time it does, she takes an audible sigh and proceeds to type her name as one of the other authors of the report, hoping that it will be overlooked. When Paul Stafford looks at the report cover, he sighs heavily and says, “Computers don’t author reports,” then rips off the cover and throws it away. Though Stafford was not a real person, he represented the countless engineers who denied her contributions, even though she did a majority, if not all, of the calculations.

There are other scenes throughout the film that show the lack of empathy extended towards the black women at NASA. There was little care extended to black women during the state-enforced Jim Crow era. During this time, the East Computing group, also known as the white women computers of NASA, had a department on the Langley campus, with easy access to restrooms, the cafeteria, and the main heads of NASA. The West Computing Group was half a mile off campus. Beyond character interaction, the film carefully showcases the obvious difference in treatment offered to black women versus white women. The West Computing Group building looked run-down, not tended to, with brown and wooden finishes. The East Computing Group department had marble floors, chrome finishes, and clean, white desks. Segregation as usual.

The most irritating part of the film was the sense of “uplift” the audience is supposed to feel when Johnson’s white male counterparts did something for her. It was almost as if a CGI halo was added to John Glenn’s head. Of course, it is important for the oppressor to stand up for the oppressed because even if they do not actively contribute to oppression they benefit from the system that allows them to be the oppressor. During some parts of the film, the women are glorified for their work (which was actually done by multiple women, not just them — read the book!). During other parts, they are simply three women in a workplace who managed to make the most of a rough time in history.

At the turning point of the film, Katherine Johnson has to explain to her boss, Al Harrison (another composite of the various people she worked under due to the high turnover at NASA), why she leaves her desk for forty minutes to go the bathroom. She says, “I have to walk to Timbuktu to relieve myself and Lord knows I can’t use one of those nifty bikes.” Harrison then walks to the West Computing Group, half a mile away from the main campus, and takes a crowbar to the “Colored Women’s Room” sign. Then Harrison says, “At NASA, we all pee the same color.”

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Of course, this is drama for the sake of cinema; there is no proof that this actually took place. Shetterly writes that Miriam Mann, a real former member of the West Computing Group, regularly took down the “Colored Computers” sign at the entrance to their cafeteria.

When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s,” Shetterly writes.

There is a powerful scene where Mary Jackson addresses the issue of whiteness full on. Her mentor, a white man, asked her why she wasn’t considering applying to the engineering program if she had the mind of an engineer. She said that there was no way that they would accept a black woman. He asked, “If you were a white man, would you question whether you could be an engineer?” She answered, “I wouldn’t have to. I would already be one.”

In the end, despite the excessive drama, this is still a must-watch film. When you do watch it, take the time to understand the full history of black NASA workers, as there is much more to the story than John Glenn calling up “the girl” to confirm the landing coordinates for the Friendship 7.

As NASA explains on their website, “The women at the center of the story were not so much hidden as unseen.”

This is not a tale about invisible people; this is a tale about incredible black women whose stories were erased for the sake of ease. It is a tale about capable black women who did not individually improve NASA’s lack of inclusion, but took the small steps forward to pull a few others up along with them.

Amarachi Metu is an Arts and Entertainment staff writer for The Triton. She can be reached at ametu@ucsd.edu.