'Hidden Figures' shines a light on maths, science and unsung heroes

17 Feb 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Hidden Figures group shot
Hidden Figures group shot

Hidden Figures tells the true-story of a group of African-American women working for NASA at the time of the Space Race. Faced with discrimination as a result of their gender as well as their race, their workplace was a very different environment to that experienced by the majority of their colleagues. However, these women had a crucial impact on NASA developing the science to successfully launch their first manned orbit into space, and ultimately send human beings to the moon. Over fifty years later, their achievements are finally being celebrated.

In 1955, both America and the Soviet Union announced plans to send satellites into orbit, sparking a contest that the Russians initially won, as they launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite in space, in 1957. With America playing catch-up, the race intensified. In April 1961, the Russians went one step further and put the first man into space, astronaut Yuri Gagarin. Three weeks later, the first American also headed into the skies, although unlike Gagarin, American Alan Shepherd's flight did not orbit the Earth. However, in February 1962, astronaut John Glenn did become the first American to achieve this, on board the Friendship 7 spacecraft. That mission renewed American confidence in space travel, and ultimately led to the Apollo 11 mission that successfully landed a man on the moon for the first time in 1969 - ahead of the Russians.

As the film makes clear, the Space Race was not just an exercise in national bragging rights (although there was a fair bit of that too). It was a serious mission taking place at the height of the Cold War, when anxieties over nuclear and aerial weaponry were at a high. As such, demonstrating superior technological and scientific might was seen as a political necessity. This resulted in extreme pressure on the employees of NASA from the very top of the United States government.

Katherine Goble, Dorothy Johnson and Mary Jackson all worked at the Langley Virginia Centre, as part of a group of mathematicians known as the West Area Computers division. At the time, women were not afforded the same workplace rights as men. This meant poorer pay, less responsibility, and fewer opportunities for promotion. These issues were even more pronounced for black women. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary grew up in a time of segregation, where black children had to attend separate schools with little funding and lacklustre facilities. 

By 1961, little had changed. Black people were forced to use separate water fountains, only sit in designated areas of public transport, and even faced restrictions on which books they could borrow from the local library. This discrimination extended to the indignity of using separate bathrooms. As if that were not bad enough, there were the cold looks, snide comments and endless condescension to endure from others in the community. In effect until as recently as 1965, the Jim Crow laws (which enforced this segregation) demonstrated how racism can be at its most insidious when concentrated on everyday life.

The West Area Computers division was one such segregated area. In a time before computers, the women that worked there were tasked with doing the crucial number-crunching that machines would eventually make routine by hand. Although their work was important, the women were treated with little respect by their colleagues. With the arrival of an early computer placing their jobs on the line, their attitude was impressively resourceful. Dorothy ensured she was the first person to work out how to use the new machinery (partly through secretly borrowing library books that were unavailable to her), and training her colleagues to become adept at using it before anyone else. This ingenuity and early-adoption of computer skills ensured that their labour - rather than becoming obsolete - became more crucial than ever. As anxieties around the automation of human-labour continue, their resourcefulness offers a lesson that resonates today.

This forms a core message of the film. Hidden Figures celebrates the joys of education, learning and self-improvement. This is also seen in Mary's story, in which through brio - and not a little stubbornness - she battles to be granted access to evening classes that are only open to white people. Doing so ultimately put her on a path to becoming NASA's first black female engineer. Alongside such contemporary figures as Malala and Sonita, the women depicted here are inspirational role-models that remind us that access to learning should never be taken for granted.

The central focus of the story, however, is on Katherine. Taken out of the Computer division and placed into the main Space Task group, Katherine has to overcome discrimination and intolerance just to be allowed to perform a job she's great at. fighting this battle involves a combination of steel-determinism and sheer hard-graft: Katherine knows she is probably the most able person in the room, but she has to work much harder than anybody else for that to even begin to be recognised. Gradually, though, her work began to be appreciated, and Katherine's calculations were a crucial factor in determining that the Friendship 7 successfully landed back on Earth after its mission. For this - and her many subsequent achievements - a 95 year-old Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015.

Hidden Figures dispenses with the clichéd cinematic trope of depicting mathematicians as socially awkward, eccentric (and usually white, male) figures. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are all warm, energetic, well-rounded individuals: advanced geometry is only one of their many skills. The film also highlights the behind the scenes mechanics at NASA itself. Audiences are accustomed to seeing Mission Control in films like Apollo 13, or astronauts communicating with the base from far-off locations like in Gravity or The Martian. But Hidden Figures reveals the unsung heroes, demonstrating the bewildering complexity and the vast number of people it takes working on-the-ground to send even one astronaut into space.

Films like Hidden Figures help to open up academic subjects into the modern world, encouraging students that they too can reach for the stars. However, it will also remind them that they will have to work for it, and while that can only be a positive thing, it should never come at the expense of fairness of opportunity or treating people fairly and decently. Access to education remains something denied to women in many parts of the world; Hidden Figures highlights the importance of individual learning and how that can help us to advance collectively.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Into Film programmer

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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