Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
High-profile protests dominated the media during the civil rights era in 1960s America. At NASA, a quieter struggle was already underway. From the 1940s, African-American women had been chipping away at perceptions and making incursions into the early space programme — that otherwise very white, male world.
The stories of three of these scientific whizzes – Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson – are now told in Hidden Figures, a film directed by Theodore Melfi and based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly (reviewed here for Nature by Alexandra Witze).
This sharp, witty triple biopic captures the focused frenzy of the United States’ space race with the Soviet Union, when NASA was trying to figure out how to achieve the remarkable feat of launching a man into orbit atop a rocket and returning him safely. That all-out effort meant opening the doors to the best people — which in turn created an opportunity for these pioneering African-American women to take on roles previously barred to them.
The movie recreates NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, a state that in the early 1960s remained segregated. Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson are among Langley’s human “computers”: women hired to do the mathematics behind space flight, in the days just before the room-sized first IBM machine did it for them. This smart, passionate band, who made up the West Computing group, spend their days calculating launch and landing trajectories and air flow around capsules, armed only with pencils and reams of paper.
The trio were truly extraordinary. Vaughan, played by Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer, is the matriarch. Although head of the computing group, she is not initially recognised as such for racist reasons. The film shows her initiative over the years in becoming an expert programmer of computing machines as the march of technology sees electronic counterparts to human computers emerge. Meanwhile Jackson, played with spirit by singer Janelle Monáe, wants to be an engineer. She struggles to reach ever-moving goalposts, including segregation laws that prevent her from attending the only school where she could get the necessary qualifications. Monáe’s vivacity earns her most of the film’s best lines.
The main focus in on Johnson, perhaps the most remarkable of the three. Her work stands at the very heart of US success in space. The film opens with her as a child prodigy, then zips past degrees in mathematics and French, and graduate school at West Virginia University — where she was one of the first black students to attend. At NASA she was soon picked to join the Space Task Force, who needed her talents in calculating the geometries of parabolic and, later, orbital flight. So indispensable was she that astronaut John Glenn asked for her to personally check the calculations of his trajectory by hand, ahead of the first US orbital flight in 1962.
Johnson is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as quiet, tenacious and warm-hearted. The character could not be more different from Henson’s role as gangster Cookie Lyon in the music-industry television drama Empire. Johnson is a whizz with the chalk, often seen up a ladder scrawling calculations on a giant blackboard. She carves out her own position in the team, and in colourful outfits and heels offers a human face as often the only woman in a sea of white-shirted, pencil-tied men. (Among many excellent supporting actors, such as The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner as a fictional amalgamation of several real NASA leaders deserves special mention. Gum-chewing and hard-nosed, he insists on referring to his team as “gentlemen” despite Johnson’s presence; but his desire to reach the heavens is what gives her her chance.)
Hidden Figures succeeds in revealing the institutionalised racism faced by the women and their families. Bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, libraries — all were segregated. One of the best exchanges is between Vaughan and computing pool supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who insists, “I have nothing against y’all”. To this, Vaughan kindly replies: “I know you probably believe that.” And the women’s status as invisible engines driving the space programme contrasts clearly with the pomp surrounding the astronauts, who as the faces of NASA seem constantly showered with red, white and blue confetti.
Yet the upbeat film can sometimes come across as sanitised. There are no real baddies: even the racist characters, flawed with conscious or unconscious bias, seem ultimately good. A touch more anger wouldn’t have detracted from the enjoyable feel-goodness, epitomised by a bouncing soundtrack by co-producer Pharrell Williams (composer of mega-hit Happy).
On another level, this may be an effort to avoid the film being solely about race. Rather, it is about women and their love of science. Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson had families to support and could not risk everything in the political fight for equality. In chasing their passions, these three chose to foment change from the inside. Hidden Figures fleshes its characters out into real human beings, and tells their cracking story with grace.
Elizabeth Gibney is a reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @LizzieGibney. Hidden Figures’ US premiere is 25 December 2016; general release is on 6 January. The film’s UK premiere is 10 February 2017; general release is on 17 February.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.