Just minutes before his famed 1962 orbital flight, astronaut John Glenn said, “have the girl check the numbers … the smart one.” Captured in the climactic moments of director Theodore Melfi’s 2016 film, Hidden Figures, this scene recognizes the vital and unacknowledged shadows behind a real moment in history..
When John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch without the reassuring calculations of this one women, he isn’t asking for the tall girl, or the pretty girl, or the black girl. He’s asking for the “smart one.” That smart woman is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of NASA’s most ingenious mathematicians, whose flight trajectory calculations led to the success of Glenn’s mission and eventually helped Apollo 11 reach the moon.
“These women have been hidden in history so long,” described Melfi in a Q&A discussion following the screening alongside actor Kevin Costner and FOX2000 President and UCSB alum Elizabeth Gabler.
“My reaction to reading the script was so visceral,” explains Gabler, “[because] the story has life, emotion, and humanity.”
Adapted from the book written by nonfiction writer Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells a tale about the triumph of human spirit against the chilling normalcy of prejudice and insecurity. Melfi’s film plants us in the heyday of 1960s Jim Crow Virginia, where mathematicians are referred to as “computers” and the mores of segregation are hurdles to advancement. The film chronicles the untold efforts of three African American women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), whose contributions to NASA’s Langley Research Center ensured America’s success in the Space Race.
“When we know the story of John Glenn, but don’t know the story of Katherine Johnson,” Costner said, “that’s a real problem, because it’s like telling a joke without saying the punchline.”
Within the confines of a shabby brick building in NASA’s segregated campus, these women achieved thankless calculations under a “colored computers” sign that guaranteed nothing but the constant threat of unemployment. Denied promotions, educational opportunities, and access to bathrooms less than a half mile away, Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine each showcase resilience against their barriers to equality.
Fighting Virginia’s segregated education system, Mary became NASA’s first female African American engineer. Dorothy’s self-taught computer programming skills earned her the title of NASA’s first African American programming supervisor, and Katherine’s mathematical expertise challenged racial and gender insecurities with the flick of her chalk.
But rather than present racism and prejudice as a conflict between oppressor and victim, Hidden Figures tackles the deeper issues of ignorance and insecurity embedded within social tensions.
Many may assume that NASA’s lead researcher, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), is a racist due to his unpleasant treatment towards Katherine, but Parsons does a subtly magnificent job of bringing depth to his character’s off-putting nature.
“He’s not a racist in this movie,” explains Costner, “[Jim] didn’t play it as a racist. He played it as a man, an insecure, jealous man.” As Melfi further notes, “he’s a man petrified that a woman might be better than him.” Stafford’s character alludes to the collective vulnerability within society that normalizes power play.
By juxtaposing the trials of these unrecognized women against the glory of the Space Race, Hidden Figures serves as a powerful critique about the cultivation and dissemination of history by those in power. In one scene, Stafford tells his anxious team the conditioned truth that “Whoever gets there first makes the rules.” The film explores the double-edged sword of being “the first” not just out of desire, but necessity.
If we flip through the pages of our past, scrunched into grade school desks, we probably remember learning about many “firsts”. Christopher Columbus discovering the “New World”, Sir Edmund Hillary summiting Everest, and Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space.
Yet, in our tendency to condense history into narratives about “Great Men”, we lose the ability to rationalize their collective significance. What were the ramifications of Columbus’s expedition? Why isn’t Tenzing Norgay equally remembered for climbing Everest, and what were the political motivations behind Gagarin’s mission between Space Race rivals?
The reality is that history is composed of infinite facts, and it is the enormous responsibility of the individual to decide what elements to present and omit. However, as historian Howard Zinn once said, that decision, whether conscious or not, is an inevitable reflection of the interests of the individual.
When we accept incorrect history being told from the perspective of conquerors versus the conquered, or colonizers versus the colonized, or oppressors versus the oppressed, we are silently choosing to acknowledge the conditioned boundaries of divide that polarize history’s interpretation. Whose voice is relevant, and whose can be omitted?
Hidden Figures makes a point not to give the mic to one side of the story. Rather than present the truth from the perspective of the marginalized, the film works to recognize the collective congruence of narrating history. What’s alarming is not that their stories were unknown, but that they wouldn’t have been known. It begs the evaluation of not only how our history is being told, but what the consequences of omission are.