It is easy to assume that being an astronaut is a one-man job. The truth is, behind the success of an astronaut landing on the moon or a spacecraft orbiting another planet, there lays the hard work of engineers. The movie Hidden Figures (2017) emphasizes on the impactful work by African-American engineers, specifically Katherine Johnson, in NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Although impactful, the effort of African-American engineers — especially the women — were often overlooked, thus leading to the making of this particular movie.
Hidden Figures tells the untold stories of 3 women working for NASA, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson from Empire), Dorothy Vaughan (played by the amazing Octavia Spencer), and Marie Jackson (played by singer and actress Janelle Monae). The movie is set during the Space Race back in the 1960s, between Russia and America. Fun fact: Russia and the U.S always have an antagonistic thing between them, originating from the Cold War until the present-day controversies of Vladimir Putin “fooling” Donald Trump, and the probable invasion/hacking on 2016 U.S election by Russia.
In the movie, NASA, the U.S’ space organization, is in shambles. Unfortunately, the Russians have succeeded in going over the moon, what are the Americans supposed to do? That’s when the story starts to introduce Katherine Johnson, a mathematician prodigy and human computer from West Virginia.
Since little, Katherine has shown a surprising knack in Mathematics, which later gives her the opportunity to serve for NASA as the only black woman in a space-task program. What makes Katherine extra special is the fact that she’s African-American/black. The movie clarifies the racial segregation between white people and their black peers by showing how Katherine still has to walk a mile to the “colored-only” bathrooms outside the NASA building, since she’s prohibited to even pee in the “white-only” (for Caucasians) toilets. Even though the brilliancy of Katherine in calculating Physics and Math formulas is already proven, she still has no liberation in drinking coffee from the usual thermos, or peeing in the official bathrooms, due to her being African-American. Her colleagues also underestimate Katherine’s ability by giving her the most calculation tasks yet undermining her hard work.
Despite all of that, Katherine gains respect from the director of the John Glenn’s space program. With the help of her exact calculations on distance and speed, John Glenn’s spacecraft (Friendship 7) can be successfully launched. Further reading about Friendship 7 can be found: here.
Marie Jackson is also facing difficulties in getting her education to be a NASA engineer. For her to eventually gain the license to be promoted as an official engineer, Marie has to take several college courses in a white-only high school. As she’s an African-American woman, Marie is obligated to take the simple matter further to court due to the, again, racial segregation. Can you imagine going to the court only for inquiring the rights to study? After such consideration, her case is accepted by the jury, making her legal to attend the white-only high school and take the intended engineer courses. Marie Jackson becomes the only black woman studying engineer, among a sea of white men.
In spite of years being unofficial supervisor towards her other black peers, Dorothy Vaughan is still not promoted by NASA as an official supervisor — that means her payment is not up to par with her day-to-day job. When Dorothy talks about her concern to the other white supervisor, Ms. Mitchell, she is often belittled. Refusing to give up, Dorothy borrows a book from the library about machine installment that leads her to successfully operates an important machine. Because of this accomplishment and endeavor, Dorothy is promoted to be a supervisor in the end. In the movie, it’s pictured how Dorothy is struggling to borrow a book from the library. Although she pays her fair share of taxes, Dorothy can only borrow books from the inadequate “colored” section that is just insufficient (not enough) for her, or anyone basically.
It can’t be denied that the movie mostly circles around Katherine Johnson’s part on assisting the launch of John Glenn’s spacecraft. Nonetheless, the stories of Dorothy Vaughn and Marie Jackson are also nicely elaborated. Obviously, the movie storyline is a bit more exaggerated when compared to the reality, especially in terms of NASA’s racial segregation. In one of her interviews, the real Katherine Johnson pointed out how she did not feel segregated when she was working for NASA as everyone was busy calculating. The main point of the movie is to show people how regardless of racial segregations in the 1960s, there were plenty of African-American women who helped the launch of U.S spacecrafts to the moon. This particular fact is overlooked, even ignored, by the mainstream history. That’s why this movie is called Hidden Figures (these black women were hidden by mainstream history) — they are now hidden no more.