On January 20, 2017, I was eating lunch in Clinton, NY. Following President Trump’s inaugural address, the National Anthem was sung. Sitting in the dining room, we could hear the TVs in the bar, but couldn’t see them. “Who’s singing?” asked a 70-ish white man at the next table. “Jackie Evancho,” I said. The man replied, “Not black, I hope. She’d better not be black.”
The next day, as hundreds of thousands of women converged on the National Mall for a day of protest, I attended a matinee screening of Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 nonfiction book of the same name. Needless to say, I didn’t see my lunch mate there, and I doubt he’d approve. The movie is a too-brief, too-dramatized condensation of the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three black women whose contributions to the U.S. space program went largely unnoticed for more than fifty years. It’s worth summarizing their bios:
Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer) was a mathematician who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the organization that later became NASA), at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at the center; she was later officially promoted to the position (read into that what should be read – Shetterly and the movie make the point explicitly.) Vaughan taught herself and her staff the programming language FORTRAN, anticipating the switch from manual computation to computer-aided calculation. Here’s the kicker: not only did Vaughan train herself and those she was responsible for, she also arranged childcare when the mothers she supervised had to work late.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was also a NACA mathematician at Langley. To earn promotion to engineer, Jackson needed graduate-level night courses in math and physics. Those were offered by the University of Virginia at Hampton HS, a legally segregated school; Jackson had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend classes. Jackson was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958, the first black female engineer in NASA’s history. She eventually earned the most senior engineering title available, then took a demotion to assume a management role in the Federal Offices for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. In those, she worked to influence the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, engineering, and mathematics centers.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a physicist and mathematician at NACA/NASA. She was known for her accuracy in computerized celestial navigation; she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for Project Mercury, including the early missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, as well as the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, on through the Space Shuttle program. Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2015.
I looked up all of that after watching Theodore Melfi’s movie, because apart from a few scattered references, I didn’t know the history. That despite knowing plenty about the U.S. Space program – I’ve read dozens of accounts and seen plenty of movies, but they’re always about white male (geek) heroism. A story about black women’s contributions to the space program in the early 1960s is an impossibly rich setting for a movie – too rich to be told in 120 PG minutes. Still, as Ty Burr writes, “[Y]ou come out of the movie knowing who Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are, and so do your daughters and sons.” If the movie accomplishes nothing else, that’s enough.
I didn’t love Melfi’s direction or screenplay (he cowrote it with Allison Schroeder), because I was always aware of its movie-of-the-week quality – the black men verge on saintly, to contrast with the silent cruelty of the all-white NASA engineers; the kids are adorable and completely understand why their mothers are constantly absent; most egregiously, mega star Kevin Costner is on hand to assuage white guilt by tearing down the sign outside the colored women’s rest room (his character and the incident are largely invented.) Melfi also includes a scene that intentionally echoes Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), wherein a team of female black mathematicians marches shoulder-to-shoulder in slow motion, as throat-constricting music swells. You get the point, but damn, you feel cheap afterward.
At the end of the day, Melfi’s movie works, even if it’s a throwback to more “classic” biopic styles – it’s not artistically subtle, like Ava DuVernay’s devastating Selma (2014). That’s arguably appropriate, because this movie SHOULD HAVE BEEN made 50 years ago. I had to fact-check the movie’s climax, where John Glenn (Glen Powell) specifically requests that Johnson verify calculations before he takes off – it feels too on-the-nose to be true. Here’s what the real John Glenn said: “Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, you know, I’m good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.” The condescension of the word “girl” lends verisimilitude (I think the movie uses “smart one.”)
I also looked up what NASA thought about the movie. Chief Historian Bill Barry says, “Like anything based on real-life events, there are some temporal things that, as a historian, are like, ‘eh, that didn’t really happen like that,’ but I think that the movie is true to the stories of the main characters.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “I have told my employees that I hope every single one of them gets to see it. They will laugh, they will cry through it and a lot will get very angry because it is not a black women story, it is the story of any minority in a technical field, even today.”
When I saw Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), I was outraged that people would exit the largely fictionalized movie believing they understood mathematician John Nash. That film had an organizing motif based on True Love, not nearly as interesting as what actually happened. I don’t think Hidden Figures falls into the same trap – where it simplifies, it doesn’t change the essence of its incredible story. I wish it had been told over 13 episodes on basic cable – today’s home for in-depth artistry. Still, Shetterly reports that “Katherine Johnson saw the movie and she really liked it.” If Johnson and NASA are cool, then I should be, too. (I can’t wait for the miniseries that digs into the math and science.)
At the top, I mentioned today’s Women’s Marches. As those progressed, I read many social media posts in opposition to the protests, saying essentially, “Be happy for what you have. Unify and support the government that’s been so good to you.” By seeming coincidence (but not really, because social progress has always been similarly resisted), Hidden Figures repeats that line almost verbatim.
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph proposed a march on Washington, D.C. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was informed that 100,000 people would swarm to the Capitol, he issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. That order allowed Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and many others to do the work that eventually landed the United States on the moon. Plenty of people thought they should have been happy with what they had. We should all be happy they weren’t.