The movie we watched in class was Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi. This movie was released on January 6th, 2017, and has earned 78 award nominations and 32 awards including three from the NAACP and more from many pro-women organizations. Hidden Figures has brought in an astonishing $235,956,611 (“Hidden”). The cast of the movie was excellent at portraying the events in the movie in a realistic, but emotional way. The main cast of the movie was Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughn), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Glen Powell (John Glenn), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), and Mahershala Ali (Jim Johnson).
This film highlights many historical Civil Rights feats that are important for Americans as well as people of all nationalities to know about. Even though Melfi changed some of the parts of the movie such as the timeline, the characters, and parts of the historical plots, the movie conveys the sacrifice black women made to be successful in society as well as the workplace. As much as I believe that the movie was made accurately enough to be a teaching tool, Melfi should have added more emphasis on the treatment of women of this time period rather than just the race problems faced in the 60s. The Civil rights movement was a movement mainly to promote race equality, but gender equality was pushed as well. Therefore, the movie would be a good teaching tool for the race inequalities of the 60s, but not for gender equality.
Hidden Figures starts out with a friend group of three black women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn. They are stuck on the side of the road on their way to work at NASA. A police officer stops to help them, and then does not believe the women when they say they work for NASA. When they give their proof of employment, the officer gives them an escort so that they will not be late. The three women all work in the West Computing department, an all black womens area of NASA. While the three women are working, Al Harrison sends Mrs. Mitchell to find him a good computer to help with his main group of engineers and trajectory planners. Dorothy sends Katherine to fulfill the position. Katherine turns out to be a better computer than all of the men computers that preceded her. Being a black woman working with a group of all white men posed many problems for Katherine. She would have to run to the other side of the NASA complex just to use the colored ladies restroom. Soon there was a colored coffee pot in her work area that was put there just for her. The men that she worked with did not believe that she was capable of computing as well as she did. This drove her over the edge and she blew her top at Mr. Harrison for asking her why she was using so much time for her bathroom breaks.
Meanwhile, Dorothy was trying to become supervisor of the colored computers and she kept getting rejected. A new machine was being put into the building as well, and it struck her interest. Mary was advancing slowly and working her way up to an engineering position with the wind tunnel engineers. As soon as she became eligible for the position, NASA set new standards for engineers that required her to take classes only offered at a white high school. Mary went to court and asked for permission to go to school at the local white high school and said “I can’t change the color of my skin, but I can help change this country.” The judge ordered that Mary could attend the school, but only the night classes. Dorothy finds out that the new machine is a mechanical computer and she notices that the programmers don’t know how to program it. She goes to her local whites only library and finds the book that explains how to program with FORTRAN. She gets kicked out of the library but steals the book. Dorothy spends the night coding the machine and has it running in the morning.
Back in the trajectory planning area of NASA, the numbers were almost solved out and the engineers were trying to find the re-entry point. Katherine solves the math and finds the re-entry point. She has to fight to get into a board meeting to find out more information about the flight so that she can know the information she needs to finish the rest of the calculations. She shows how smart she is to the directors and Glenn, the astronaut, by showing the landing coordinates. The movie comes to a close with Glenn asking the launch staff to have Katherine check the coordinates one more time. In the end of the movie, Mary becomes an air tunnel engineer, Dorothy becomes the supervisor of the IBM programmers, and Katherine sees her work in action by watching the Friendship 7 launch, and she marries Colonel Jim Johnson.
The movie, while entertaining and half-true, gets a few big things messed up. First off, the characters Al Harrison, Paul Stafford, and Vivian Mitchell were fictional characters. Harrison was created mainly to represent Robert C. Gilruth who was the head of the Space Task Force at Langley Research Center and then the director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. According to NASA, the reason he was replaced with a fictional character was that, “the organizational structure of the Space Task Group was much more complicated and was changing quickly during the time period when the movie takes place” (Loff “Modern”). This made for the character to make more sense within the plot of the movie. Paul Stafford was a mix of engineers that worked with Katherine Johnson. While she worked in the Space Task Group, there was a large turnover of engineers and scientists. NASA stated on their site about the movie, “Much of her early work on trajectories was done with Ted Skopinski, but there was a team of engineers with whom she worked at the time, including Skopinski, John Mayer, Alton Mayo, Al Hamer and Carl Huss” (Loff “Modern”). Paul Stafford was placed in the movie to reinforce the belief of Katherine’s co-workers that a black woman could not do the work of a white man. The character Vivian Mitchell was made to represent a white woman named Margery Hannah.Vivian was not kind or accepting to the black women in the movie, but in real life Mrs. Hannah was an accepting and kind woman who was inclusive of blacks (Frieden and Frieden).
Another big part of the movie that was not explained was the criticality of John Glenn’s mission. John Glenn was the first American to orbit around the earth. This was critical because the math and engineering that went into getting him there had to be perfect. That was a matter of life or death for him. The film makes this clear because it made Katherine and the other ladies’ jobs more critical and important. There’s not much impressive about people doing math, but when they’re doing math to accomplish a feat that the country and Glenn were both counting on, it becomes very important. This mission was important to the country because of the Space Race between the U.S. and the USSR. Russia was launching spaceships and satellites into orbit around the earth and it was scaring Americans. Americans thought that since the USSR had these things in space, that they could were spying on the U.S. and that they were going to possibly attack from space. America had to make sure they were keeping up with the Soviets and they had to keep the soviets in second place. Launching a man into space was a big deal to the country because it would put the U.S. in the lead (Dunbar). To emphasize the importance of Katherine’s role in this mission, the movie depicted John Glenn asking for “the girl” to check the trajectory routes while he was waiting in the cockpit for blast-off. While Glenn did ask that “the girl” recheck the trajectories done by the IBM machine, he had asked a few days before the blast-off. According to NASA’s modern figures website, “This occurred well before the launch, and calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took her a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s exactly, giving John Glenn, and everyone else, the confidence that the critical computer software was reliable”(Loff “Modern”).
The changing of the timeline is the biggest change made by Melfi. The events that happened in the movie all seemed to occur within months of the 1962 launch of the Friendship 7. Segregation became illegal in 1945 by an executive order by FDR, but this took time to enforce. At the time, the research program at Langley was ran by NACA. “Built in 1917, this research complex (Langley) was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the space race gained speed” (Wei-Haas) NACA allowed segregation, and it was actually in the time before the dissolving of NACA into NASA, the newly founded space program, (before 1958) that segregation was allowed. This was the time in which the colored bathrooms were only tin the West Computing area of Langley Research Center. While NACA was segregated, they started hiring blacks and women as early as the 1930’s (Frieden and Frieden) since they were proven to be able to do computing just as well as a man and also since most men were in danger of being drafted. The film depicts black women as being newly allowed at Langley in the late 50s to early 60s (Atkinson). Setting the movie between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act emphasized how black women were treading on dangerous waters. Mary Jackson went to court to get permission to attend an all white school right after the Brown vs. Board of Education trial was decided by the supreme court in 1953. Mary finished her classes in 1958 (Frieden and Frieden) but the movie depicted her trial in the early 1960s. Another place where the timeline was altered was when Dorothy Vaughan learned to code with FORTRAN. The movie has the viewer infer that Dorothy learns this right before the 1962 launch, but she actually started working with the FORTRAN code in 1958. In the movie, Dorothy was also struggling to become a computers supervisor. In reality, she became a supervisor in 1949 (Loff “Dorothy”).
Some of the small detail changes made the movie drastically different. In the movie, Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary are depicted as close friends, while in reality they barely knew each other. By making them friends in the movie, the three women’s’ stories connected together making a bigger picture of the black women in the space program. The women became closer later in life after they became heroes in the space program. The three of these women are pictured below. When questioned why her bathroom breaks were so long, Katherine “blew up” at Harrison out of anger over how she was being treated. In reality, Mary was the one who blew her top. Mary was angered at her future mentor Kaz Czarnecki. The coffee pot set out specifically for Katherine was also never happened in history. This was a representation of the “black table” signs in the cafeteria (Frieden and Frieden).
The movie focuses on the roles of race rather than gender in NASA. Even though the main characters had some discrimination based on their sex, the main emphasis of the movie was of blacks working for NASA in the early Western Computing group. More emphasis should have been put on gender roles in NASA and in society in the movie. The white women in the movie did not receive the gender discrimination that would have been around in the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement started to lay some on the stepping stones to women’s equality in the U.S. “Gradually, Americans came to accept some of the basic goals of the Sixties feminists: equal pay for equal work, an end to domestic violence, curtailment of severe limits on women in managerial jobs, an end to sexual harassment, and sharing of responsibility for housework and child rearing” (Walsh). The movie has hints of the pre-Civil Rights movement America in it, such as Dorothy being forced out of the whites only library because the black library didn’t have a book on FORTRAN. Another place in the movie where race discrimination is seen is at the very beginning when the three women act super nice to the white police officer to avoid conflict. At the NASA space rally when Glenn shows up, Glenn is the only white man who acknowledges the blacks at the rally. These hints show the racist culture of the majority of white people in the 1960s.
This film would be a good tool to use in the classroom despite the fact that the historical timeline is condensed and that women’s equality is not emphasized enough. The movie shows how blacks worked extra hard to overcome the obstacles in their way just so that they could successfully do their jobs. I believe that the movie should be shown in conjunction with reading the book on which it is based by Margot Lee Shetterly. Lee said in an interview, “I hope people will read the book to get the fullness of all of these women” (Heathcock). Shetterly explained that her book had the stories of these women laid out more historically accurate than the movie because so many events were going on between these women. All in all, this movie is a slice of the history involved in race and gender equality at NASA in the pioneer days of the program. The movie is justified to not having all of the details being historically accurate – it is hard to fit 30 years of history into two hours of film.
Atkinson, Joe. “From Computers to Leaders: Women at NASA Langley.” NASA, NASA, 24 Aug. 2015, www.nasa.gov/larc/from-computers-to-leaders-women-at-nasa-langley.
Dunbar, Brian. “Profile of John Glenn.” NASA, NASA, 5 Dec. 2016, www.nasa.gov/content/profile-of-john-glenn.
Frieden, James A., and Deborah Elliott Frieden. “Lesson Plans Based on Movies & Film Clips! .” Teach With Movies – Lesson Plans from Movies for All Subjects, TeachWithMovies.com, www.teachwithmovies.org/guides/hidden-figures.html.
Heathcock, Ryan, director. “”Hidden Figures”” Author Margot Lee Shetterly Speaks with Ryan Heathcock. YouTube, YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?+v=PdbPkCGUq9k.
“Hidden Figures (2016).” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=hidden figures.htm.
Loff, Sarah. “Dorothy Vaughan Biography.” NASA, NASA, 22 Nov. 2016, www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography.
Loff, Sarah. “Modern Figures: Frequently Asked Questions.” NASA, NASA, 7 Jan. 2017, www.nasa.gov/modernfigures/faq.
Nye, Bob. “5 Cool Things the Women Who Inspired ‘Hidden Figures’ Accomplished.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 23 Dec. 2016, entertainment.howstuffworks.com/5-cool- things-women-who-inspired-hidden-figures-accomplished.htm.
Walsh, Kenneth T. “The 1960s A Decade of Change for Women.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 12 Mar. 2010. Web.
Wei-Haas, Maya. “The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures,”” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 8 Sept. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/forgotten-black-women-mathematicians-who-helped-win-wars-and-send-astronauts-space-180960393/.