By Lila Fenner
Based on true story, the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”, directed by Theodore Melfi, documents the historic odysseys of three African American women living in 60’s Jim Crow America. The women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, served as “human computers” for NASA. The job description of “human computer” entailed working in a room packed with other, primarily African American women with degrees in mathematics, performing assigned mathematical calculations needed for sending objects into space — all by hand.
“Hidden Figures” is a story of change; changes in technology, changes within the organization structure of NASA, changes in the beliefs that people hold. The three women the film profiles face many challenges as they move upwards in the ranks of NASA. After being promoted from her job as a “human computer,” when Katherine, a brilliant mathematician, walks into the room on the first day of her new assignment, she is greeted by cold stares from the eyes of fifty white men. Her presence at her new workplace is so unusual that she has to walk half a mile to the nearest colored ladies restroom. One man even assumes that she is a janitor, but Katherine’s passion for her job is so strong that she keeps working harder than ever, and soon plays a vital role in sending the first man into space. Mary wants to become an engineer, but the graduate-level courses in physics she needs to take are inaccessible to her as a Black woman. Undeterred, she takes her case to court and convinces the judge to let her take the classes. Because of her refusal to give up, she soon achieves her dream and becomes NASA’s first African-American female engineer. Dorothy wants to become supervisor of the human computers, a job whose responsibilities she already holds, but is overlooked because of the color of her skin. However, she keeps working and insisting a promotion until one day it finally comes, and she becomes the first Black female supervisor at NASA.
Because of their insistence that the world change for the better, the three women in “Hidden Figures” achieve amazing things–doing the calculations for sending the first man to space, overcoming segregated schools, and being the first Black woman to fill the role of supervisor or engineer. A beautifully constructed period piece, “Hidden Figures” gives long-awaited credit to a few of the overlooked heroines of history, and is well worth a few hours out of your day to learn about these amazing women.
Photo Credit: Billy Brown