Blog #143 – Hidden Figures
This film is a stirring film about the intersection of math and history and how math conquers all (rejoice, my math teacher friends!). The story portrays the struggles of Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, the math expert on the John Glenn flight and also instrumental in the moon landing; and Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female African American engineer. It is startling to see how Jim Crow racism was shoved in the face of these strong women, typified in Katherine’s struggle to maintain her dignity while sprinting across NASA’s campus to visit the only “colored” bathroom nearby. Furthermore, the women of the West Computing Room have to deal with the intersectionality of both racism and sexism since they are women of color. With Dorothy’s leadership, they are able to carve out a niche in the very male-dominated computing field.
In some ways, this is a film about progress: Civil Rights progress, gender progress, and also technology’s relentless march forward. This is shown by the real film clips of Civil Rights protests occurring in 1961 and 1962. We also see progress as women make strides into the male-dominated fields of computers and engineering. Almost all of the white male characters at NASA are figurative clones, wearing white shirts, dark pants, and thin dark ties. Occasionally, we might see a flash of color on Paul Stafford’s tie (Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory), but for the most part, all of the white men have the same uniform and haircuts. That’s why the women of color stand out, not just in their attire but because of their skin color. We see technology’s progress, however much it is double-sided, when Katherine temporarily loses her job as a “computer” in the Space Task Group when Dorothy finally gets the IBM Main frame computers online, a machine that can do 24,000 calculations a second. This machine makes the women of both the East (white) and West (Black) Computing Rooms obsolete. Only when the computer spits out different landing coordinates for John Glenn’s return to Earth right before launch does Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), NASA’s head of the Space Task Group, bring Katherine back in to confirm the computer’s numbers.
There was an outstanding moment near the end of the film when news of John Glenn’s orbit is released, and all Americans, regardless of skin color or gender, are united in their worries over the fate of Glenn (and by extension, America’s space program and maybe even its prominence in the Cold War). Scenes show black and white Americans standing in front of a store front watching the TV reports about the peril Glenn faced as his capsule threatened to burn up on re-entry (an aside: imagine this dramatic scene of a nation gripped by a similar incident today – how would Americans be tuning into the progress of such an incident? Certainly not standing on a street watching a TV). Another scene showed Americans parking their cars and listening to their radios, staring up at the sky, looking for a fleeting glimpse of Glenn’s capsule, even though it was going to splash down in the Bahamas. These scenes showed a united America, hoping and praying for the successful return of one of our golden boys, the Mercury 7 astronauts. These scenes are also a way of showing how little militancy there is to this story of racial advancement and integration. The most powerful scenes in the film are ones in which characters stand up for themselves or right the wrongs of our sordid past. This is not a criticism of this film. It doesn’t need to be angry about the past. In fact, this film emphasizes the women of the film and to dwell on America’s sad racial history isn’t what this film is about. It’s about transcending that history.
I think that one of the larger question that everyone should be asking themselves is how did this story not make it into the history books? It has great human drama, excitement, daring, perseverance, and a thrilling conclusion. The other question is how many other hidden and forgotten stories are out there, waiting to be told? If these ladies, who were such an extraordinary part of this story to send Americans into space, can be forgotten and shunted to the side for over 60 years, where are the rest of these stories? One thing to keep in mind is that by telling these hidden stories of people / women of color, we as historians do not have to pick and choose to eliminate stories of white participants, but to include them all. History doesn’t have to be like a pie to be carved up into smaller and smaller sections but like a tapestry that continues to be weaved into a more complete picture.
CHOOSE 3 OF THE 5 QUESTIONS BELOW AND ANSWER THEM.
- Explain how the title “Hidden Figures” has different layers of meaning for this film and time period.
- Provide at least 2 specific examples of Jim Crow discrimination or racism perpetrated by the white characters and how they affected Katherine, Mary, and / or Dorothy.
- This is a story of overcoming challenges that white society put in the way of our main characters. How did all three women overcame these obstacles.
- How did sexism affect Dorothy’s, Mary’s, and Katherine’s careers? Provide specific examples.
- How does the Civil Rights Movement play as the backdrop for the advancing fight against the Cold War’s space race? Provide examples.
1. The title Hidden Figures represents two different things for the context of the film and the time period.. Hidden Figures represents the math needed to complete the space missions. The figures, or equations, where “hidden”, or not known/found. The story follows these female engineers who use math in their field of work. They are then told they might lose their jobs because of new machines that could do it faster. This drives them to do better which helps them achieve their goal of making it to space. Hidden Figures also represents their marginalized voices and how others communicate with them. Being black and a woman when segregation is still happening and women are looked down upon by men. These women struggle to make their way to the top because of people in their way, trying to stop them because of their gender and race. This film highlights the hidden voices in history, those that were shut out by white men.
2. Throughout the film, all three of these characters experienced great discrimination from white people, whether it be men or women. They could have easily eased into these harsh remarks and left NASA, but they stayed because they knew their worth and wanted to prove them wrong. They fully deserved to be there because their intelligence outweighed so many working there. After working at NASA for a minute, their white supervisor claimed they needed to take this course to become real NASA engineers. The only place they could take this course was at white schools, and segregation was still around, so they couldn’t. They literally had to go to court because they couldn’t take this court. Another moment of discrimination happened when Katherine had to go to the bathroom. There were no black bathrooms at NASA, so she had to walk 40 minutes to go to the bathroom and back. She obviously didn’t like it, but she had to deal with it because there were no other options. Her one male supervisor understood and made accommodations for her.
4. Katherine worked with math with many white men. She proved she was just as smart as all of them, but many didn’t see her as such. She was constantly belittled and not taken seriously. Even after working so hard, she wasn’t let into the meetings in the Pentagon. Intersectionality plays a big part in this, as she is a black woman, who were consistently frowned upon. Dorothy knew more about the IBM machine than any other person, but her job was still in jeopardy because of advancements made in the technology. She wasn’t in office because of this, but they ended up needing her to check over numbers during the launch. Mary was already struggling at her extra class because it was an all-white school, but the teacher told her that the course was only to be learned by men. These women faced so much being black and women, but they persevered and are great role models.
1. Hidden figures is the title of the movie that we watched in class, and of course this title has some great meaning to it. For starters in the movie our main characters were shunned out of the light by all of the white men at Nasa. Our main characters were Black Women, which garnered the least respect out of anybody at the time period for absolutely no reason. Throughout the movie our main character struggled and kept on pushing to get a higher up position at NASA, she wanted to be up there with the top dogs. In this she ended up victorious, being brought up into a higher up place in NASA where she was doing more important work. Of course there was still heavy unjust discrimination that did occur but none the less she did what was deemed impossible and broke many barriers. Many big events happened like this throughout our movie with Women of color fighting to achieve new goals and benchmarks that would rocket them and their race up through society. But alas after all this hard work and rising through the ranks nobody really knew about them today until this movie came out. This is why the movie is titled “hidden figures” it shows that not only were our protagonists in the movie not very well known by society despite their great achievements, but many black people at the time and at times before this are hidden figures, still waiting to be seen in history books.
3. All three of our main women overcame these obstacles in major ways. Starting with Kathrine, she found her way into one of the highest spots in Nasa despite her skin color and race. Dorthy did something similar, allowing for not only herself but the entire west computing group to gain higher respect and a more important job. And Mary managed to fight the odds and win a court case allowing her to go to a school that she otherwise would not have been allowed in.
4.Sexism heavily affected the lives of these 3 women, but even though she prevailed, I think it affected Kathrine the most. In the movie Kathrine struggled time and time again being the only real woman working that high up at NASA. She was not allowed to attend meetings that were crucial for her and NASA’s success. Not only that but she was treated terribly by her co workers, with people criticizing her and just overall not giving her a break such as Paul Stafford
1. Hidden figures has different layers of meaning because the main characters Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were severely discriminated and had to work extra hard to achieve their goals, and he film sheds light on issues the Black community faced and are especially relevant today, including workplace discrimination and the experience of having accomplishments diminished in favor of their white counterparts. The title is trying to help prove that women were not getting nearly enough credit nor respect for all of their accomplishments in history such as those of the “hidden figures” themselves, and this movie is trying to get the women more respect. Most people didn’t really fully understand how much work went on behind the scenes to make the space program successful, especially the work of colored women. The hidden figures women were very much part of that. Their numbers in math were the bedrock of so much of the work that was done in American aeronautics in the 19th century.
3. Dorothy, Mary and Katherine overcame many obstacles because of their perseverance, effort and attitude. Even though their co-workers and even family members and friends at times were doubting them and their abilities, they continued to try their best and didn’t let any of the negative influences bother them. Even when Stafford clearly did not want any of them around they still continued to work extremely hard and eventually gained his respect even if it seemed impossible to do.
4. Sexism affected Dorothy’s, Mary’s, and Katherine’s careers because they had several different difficulties to reach the important positions at NASA. Mary’s career is affected when she needs to go to court simply to attend night classes and her husband still does not originally approve. Another great example of how Katherines career was greatly affected was when she needed to go over half a mile just to use the colored womens restroom. Dorothy’s career is affected by sexism when she gets laid off after NASA claims it has no intention of hiring her after the IBM is made, however Dorothy ends up teaching herself another computer system to use.
1). No, I do not agree with this historian, I do not think the movie is flawed. It would be impossible to include every actual detail in a two-hour movie, it is understandable that parts of history were omitted. The omission of the backstory of turn around Tuesday also does not flaw the movie, that deal was not known at that time. We were watching the movie as the events were unfolding, the movie was not meant to be a documentary of the historic events that were known after all the facts had been realized. In addition, when MLK was asked during the movie why he didn’t continue the march across the bridge he said that he wanted to prevent bloodshed. This is a reference to the deal that MLK and LBJ made. The purpose of the movie was to share in a dramatic feature film the events that took palace in Selma Alabama in 1965, it succeed in doing this.
4. I think the portrayal that should have been shown should have been a combination of both MLK and LBJ. The Civil Rights Act was only possible because of the actions of both MLK and LBJ. It’s important to understand both perspectives and the roles that they both played in the passage of the voting rights act. It’s important to also have perspectives from a black point of view because that’s often not the most common perspective. In accounts of history back people’s roles are often minimized or excluded.
5. One similarity between the two movies is the time in which they are based (hidden figures 1961, Selma 1965). This was a period during jim crow where there was a lot of oppression and policies that made it difficult for black people to succeed both in the workplace and in their communities. Another similarity is that both movies are recent retellings from a black point of view of a historical event. History is often told from a white point of view with white protagonists, both of these movies stray from the stereotype and highlight exceptional back individuals who overcame impossible challenges. Another similarity between the two movies is how both movies have very strong black female characters, in hidden figures, it was Katherine, Mary, and Dorthy and in Selma, it was Coretta Scott King. Although Selma is mail about MLK his wife, Coretta Scott King was a powerful force in the movie and in his life.
The title “hidden figures” has many different layers of meaning for this film and for the time period. It’s funny because I never got the name until recently. I remember watching Katherine go off on everybody in the room and wondering why they would name it Hidden Figures. I remember thinking what does “hidden figures” have to do with Nasa. Then I realized how I’ve never heard of Katherine, Mary, or Dorothy till the movie came out. I then realized it was spreading awareness for the important people in our history that are never mentioned. During the time period we only hear about the same few people. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, etc. But there are so many more people that have made huge contributions to the growth of black excellence that are never mentioned, that are hidden. Also Katherine was literally a hidden figure at her job when she would figure out all these hard equations, just for that one mean coworker to never put her name on the paper. He would always take credit for her findings.
One example of Jim Crow discrimmination that really affected Mary was that she couldn’t become an engineer unless she took the class at the college. But she wasn’t able to take the class at first because it was only for white people. The school systems in the state were still segregated. This made the process harder for her and she had to make an appeal to a judge to be able to take the class. If the judge didn’t let her take it, she wouldn’t have been able to be an engineer. Also Katherine had to walk to the colored only bathroom which was a mile away from her building. It took almost an hour just to use the restroom. She did this all in heels and sometimes even rain.
All three women overcome these obstacles through perseverance and determination. When Dorothy’s boss didn’t take her seriously because of her skin color, she kept trying until she actually became super advisor and paid for it too. Dorothy wasn’t scared to at least try to go to court over segregation at the school. Katherine also kept going everyday and still stayed true to herself. Still did the work even while running the miles to get to the bathroom, till she was valued.