Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Our entire family went to see this movie yesterday. I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was thought provoking. So although it doesn’t meet my previously stated criteria for being reviewed, it did add another item to the list of things that I thought made it a worthy film.

For those unaware, Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine Johnson (and to a lesser degree Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), black female mathematicians/engineers who worked for NASA at the height of the American-Russian space race. Trailer:

I haven’t had a chance to date to read the book, but I plan to in the near future and hope to review it here upon conclusion. One the things I usually do however, when viewing a film based on true events, is fact checking at a glance. This is easily enough accomplished via a website such as History vs. Hollywood, which fact checked Hidden Figures here.

The brilliant and groundbreaking nature of the work these three women did seems to be as noteworthy as the movie depicts. NASA’s official pages dedicated to the women can be found here, here, and here. What does seem to be markedly different, at least in Katherine Johnson’s recorded experience, was the level of discrimination she experienced in the movie. Or more accurately, the discrimination she didn’t experience.

Although the film depicts a fairly hostile work environment for Katherine Johnson upon her promotion from computer to the upper levels of flight planning, she reported that she was always treated a s a respected colleague, something I find believable.

Her testimony rings more true than the movie depiction not because I underestimate the amount of racial discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. On the contrary, it rings true because of the high level of discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. There was a fierce competition between the U.S. and Russia at the time this story took place, particularly after the launch of Sputnik. Anyone who could help Americans close the gap might have been viewed as an asset.

Further, there was no such thing as affirmative action during this time so Katherine Johnson’s mere presence was evidence of her worthiness to be there. If she could help accurately and quickly compute the math to get launches accomplished, she was no doubt welcomed.

One of the noteworthy points of the existence of the colored “computers”, the name of the groups of women employed by NASA during that time to do mathematical computations, was the fact that they were all female. From the white perspective, this was not necessarily anything of note, as those girls could still marry “up”, if you will.

However, from the black perspective it highlighted (for me at least) the reality that black women -long before the militant feminism of the mid to late 60’s- were already on the road to the education and occupational advantage over black men that is so often written about today as if it the gap only just began to widen in the 1990’s. This hidden disparity was one of the peripheral issues that made this film interesting to me even though it was never addressed by the film.

I hope to discuss this story more after reading the book (which has a backlog of requests in my local library system) .I do think it’s worth viewing for the historical value.Until I can read the book, I give the movie:

Grade B-

Content advisory:

  • Discussions of racism and sexism throughout film.
  • A couple “damns” here or there, a depiction of Dorothy Vaughn sneaking a programming book from the white section of the library after not being allowed to check out books there. Lesson there for your kids.
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7 thoughts on “Movie Review: Hidden Figures

  1. I don’t have a good source right off hand, but it’s worth noting that the Department of War had similar rooms of computers for calculating things like ballistics decades before NASA got into the act….and I’m pretty sure most of those working in them were savvy young women, who quite frankly appeared to tolerate the work better than did most men, and of course they tended to get married and quit just as the tedium got unbearable. Avoided a ton of HR problems, I’d guess.

    Picture of how good a lot of these people were is that it’s said we got to the moon using only 4 of 5 digits of pi when a relatively small error in calculation would have smashed those men into the moon at a few thousand miles per hour. That’s elegant engineering!

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  2. I’m pretty sure most of those working in them were savvy young women, who quite frankly appeared to tolerate the work better than did most men, and of course they tended to get married and quit just as the tedium got unbearable. Avoided a ton of HR problems, I’d guess.

    I’d guess as well.

    I’ve heard -or read- the question raised (in the wake of this mass media spotlight on these human computers in skirts):

    Why the overwhelming drop in numbers of women in STEM? Leaving aside the misleading nature of the question, the tedium of being a numbers runner, this is my guess:

    I think it really is a matter of the changing of the industry and what is required of it. The repetitive nature of human “computers” before the technological explosions of the 80’s would no doubt appeal to women while the breakneck, innovative competitiveness of the years following would be something men were more likely to excel in, pushing women (even relatively smart ones) out.

    One thing I would be interested to know is if (given our current educational environment and trajectory) is if you could even find enough women proficient in high level math to fill rooms with women computers.

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  3. Writing as a guy who was a math TA in college, my take is that the drop in STEM enrollment–by both sexes if I remember correctly–is partially because companies tend to cut engineers and such when times get tough, and partially because a lot of people have never learned their arithmetic. I could always tell who had an elementary school teacher who hated math–half the marks on their work would be for basic arithmetic errors.

    Would be tough to have put together a computing room out of some of the classes I taught, to put it mildly.

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  4. Math instruction today is anywhere from laughable to nonexistent. You are right about that.

    Oh other thing Bike. You know the black girl computers as a rule did NOT leave their jobs upon marriage even though most of them were married.

    Black women have never really had a stake in the mommy wars.

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  5. Good points….I would guess the computing ladies didn’t leave their jobs because their husbands weren’t being offered good jobs at the time, and quite frankly it was a respite from the treatment they would have received outside of NASA?

    I’d better be careful, or else I just might learn something here…..

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