Nearly every elementary school student can tell you that the United States was the first country to set foot on the moon. Many students can also recount some, if not all, of the names of the men who were first to orbit the earth and land on the moon. But, as is the case for many moments overlooked or “forgotten” in U.S. history, the names of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the rest of the Black women mathematicians who helped those astronauts get to space and eventually land on the moon aren’t as easily recognized. That is why the premiere of the film adaption of the best-selling novel Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly is important; not just to women of color, but also to our country.
Although Hidden Figures follows the lives and contributions of three Black women “human computers” who crossed race, gender, and career lines to push the needle forward for women scientists everywhere, its power as a film does not rest in its perfect depiction of historical events. In fact, many of the events in the film are compressed in an inordinate manner that conflates timelines and uses events as devices to engage the watcher and move the storyline along. It is still a movie after all.
But, behind the anachronistic moments and condensed history, the power of the film is that it explores—as much as a 120-minute movie can—the complexity of 1960s America in the South, the civil rights movement, and the critical role that women played in the success of the space race through the eyes and lives of three Black women.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, the film stars Taraji P. Henson of Empire fame as Katherine Johnson; singer, songwriter Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson; and Academy Award-winning actress and author Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan. Unlike many Hollywood movies with Black women actors that settle for one-dimensional depictions of classic stereotypes, Hidden Figures attempts to stand against accepted media portrayals of Black women by not only putting them at the center of the story but by giving the characters smart, witty, and flawed roles. In addition, the movie depicts the fullness of the personal lives of these historic figures as colleagues, friends, mothers, wives, and leaders in their church community in Hampton, Virginia.
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According to Shetterly, an adviser to the film, bringing Hidden Figures to the big screen had its challenges. One of her biggest hurdles was ensuring that the movie stayed true to the narrative and honored the lives of the people involved. “There are all these stereotypes attached to these [Black] women, and a feeling of being more protective than you need to be when the right thing to do is to show people in their full humanity,” she said in a recent interview I conducted for Black Girl Nerds.
That full humanity included showing the reality that the movie’s main character, Katherine Johnson (Henson) was a single mother of three living with her mother when she started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Later in the movie, we also see the beginning of the romantic relationship and eventual marriage of Johnson and her second husband, Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson (Mahershala Ali), though the couple actually met and married years before the movie’s timeline supposedly begins.
Even with the attempt to show the characters as complex people, there are clear moments missing in the storyline, including the background of Vaughan (Spencer), who originally left her 8-month-old son with family to move to Hampton, Virginia, and work for NASA.
I will say, the movie does succeed more than most at painting a multidimensional picture of the lives of Black women—a picture that has been missing in Hollywood and the larger media narrative for a very long time.
In particular, the movie explores the daily struggles experienced by the characters not just as women but Black women in the workplace, touching on the often-neglected tension that existed—and still exists—between two oppressed groups: Black women and white women. Specifically, the movie explores this dynamic through the relationship of Vaughan (Spencer) and her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Throughout the movie, there is palatable strain between the two characters fueled by Mitchell’s struggle to maintain the power and authority that she has been granted as a supervisor at NASA and manifested in her consistent dismissal of Vaughan’s requests to be promoted to the position of supervisor of the “colored computing group” even as Vaughan was performing the job.
Still, what I feel is truly missing from the movie is the in-depth exploration of the relationships, lives, and incredible stories of the other Black women who worked for NACA and NASA or the larger impact that those women had on their hometown of Hampton, Virginia. Even in my interview with Shetterly she acknowledged that there just wasn’t enough time in the movie to tell all the stories of all the women, many of whom are in her book.
In particular, the movie makes no mention of the struggles of the first Black women who started at NACA in 1943. We are restricted by the power of movie magic to a small period, concluding in the year that the “human computer” program was ultimately marked to be discontinued. These women changed the course of U.S. history but still remain nameless in many circles.
In my previous interview with Shetterly, I asked what led her to tell the story of Hidden Figures, and she explained her close relationship to the women. She said, “I asked [myself], why there weren’t more books written like this. Books that just happen to have black female protagonists?”
“There is no reason why not, except the person with the point of view had not written the book and that’s me. This was my story; this is my origin story. This is where I came from. I am the moon landing,” said Shetterly, whose father is a retired research scientist who worked at NASA.
“[My dad] stood on the shoulders of these women. They were there for two decades when my father came along and they showed him the ropes, pushed him along,” Shetterly explained. “That is why I wrote [Hidden Figures].”
Shetterly continues to work to tell the stories of the Black women computers at NACA and NASA through the Human Computer Project but, the absence of all these stories in this film only makes it clear that there needs to be more films that include and are about women’s involvement in historic events. There are still so many more stories to be told.
With a nationwide release today, moviegoers around the country—especially women who seldom see themselves in dynamic leads in mainstream feature-length movies—will have their first chance to see this story on screen. I do hope that this movie serves as a stepping stone to addressing Hollywood’s lack of leading ladies of color; shifts the status quo depictions of Black women; and inspires more women of color to tell their stories.
To learn more about the story behind Hidden Figures and Margot Lee Shetterly’s Human Computer Project, visit http://thehumancomputerproject.com/.