Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Screenshot from the movie Hidden Figures.
Enlarge / Langley Research Center space program mathematician Katherine Johnson played a critical role in sending John Glenn to space.

There’s probably nothing that excites me more than a movie about heroic scientists sending astronauts into space. Apollo 13 did this masterfully, and The Martian gave it a futuristic twist. And now Hidden figures has revived this quintessentially American story, to great effect, by focusing on the true story of a group of early NASA mathematicians who plotted the flight paths of Project Mercury in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hidden figures is the perfect title for this film, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s extensively researched book of the same name. It deals with an aspect of spaceflight that is generally ignored, namely all the calculations that allow us to shoot objects into orbit and bring them back again. But it’s also about the people who are typically off screen in compelling stories about the white men who ran the space race. What Hidden figures reveals, for the first time in Hollywood history, that John Glenn would never have made it to space without the brilliant mathematical insights of a black woman named Katherine Johnson (played with what can only be called regal geekiness by Taraji Henson from Empire and Suspect).

Johnson was part of a group of “colored computers” at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, black female mathematicians who were segregated into their own math group. They worked on NASA’s Project Mercury and Apollo 11, and Johnson was just one of many women in the group whose careers made history.

While Johnson is the main character, we also follow her friends’ stories as Langley urges his engineers to catch up with the Soviets in the space race. Mary Jackson (an amazing Janelle Monae) wants to be an engineer and eventually gets a special court order so she can take classes at an all-white school. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) becomes the first African-American woman to lead a department at the space agency, teaching herself FORTRAN and programming Langley’s new IBM mainframe. One of my favorite scenes is when Vaughan debugs the computer for a bunch of white guys who have no idea what’s going on. As they splash in confusion, she knocks on the giant, humming mainframe and says, “Good girl.”

In some ways, racial identity is irrelevant to this story of how Project Mercury put the American man in orbit. Like every other brilliant mathematician or scientist on the project, Johnson spends long nights puzzling over thick books of numbers. She’s under immense pressure to come up with the exact calculations to make the famous “go-no-go” runway flight trajectory work. But unlike her all-white colleagues, Johnson faces additional challenges.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes after we watch Johnson race half a mile around the Langley campus every day so she can use the only “colored” restroom for women. While everyone else in her office can use the facilities down the hall, she has been told unequivocally to use the facilities for black ladies. And that means running back and forth in high heels for 15 minutes, rain or shine.

This seems like a minor issue, especially when compared to the fact that Johnson was told women couldn’t come to mission briefings, even though her work was key to Project Mercury. But the genius of Hidden Figures is that it makes you feel acutely how racism is a series of petty insults that pile up little by little every day, until even a brilliant mathematician is about to lose his mind. By the time Johnson gives a furious speech to her boss Al Harrison — who’s gotten pissed off because she always goes to the bathroom for 30 minutes — her anger feels fully earned. Some of her colleagues clearly agree. Harrison (a laconic Kevin Costner, who seems to specialize in playing space mission leaders) immediately bans “colored” toilets, and soon begins taking Johnson to mission briefings as well.

Johnson and her colleagues from the
Enlarge / Johnson and her colleagues from the “colored computers” group meet the charming John Glenn.

20th Century Fox

Glenn was also very supportive of Johnson, at one point refusing to begin his mission until Johnson has checked all flight trajectories. Like Harrison, he respects Johnson for her brilliance and doesn’t seem to care that she isn’t white. What makes this a satisfying story of overcoming difficult odds is that we get a pretty nuanced picture of how white people at Langley reacted to working with black women – some are not shocked by it, while others are deeply prejudiced and try to understand the thwart “colored computers”. at every turn. And there are no false records of sisterly bonding between the white and black women in Langley. In fact, the white women are among the most dismissive of women when it comes to the aspirations of Johnson and her colleagues.

In the heart, Hidden figures is a film about a space race, and there are horribly tense moments as Johnson sneaks into control of the mission (women are not allowed, of course) only to hear Glenn’s triumphant shriek as he makes it through reentry without boiling to death. But this film manages to bring heart-pounding excitement even to chalkboard drawings of orbital insertion points. Perhaps the only disappointing part of the movie, at least for this space nerd, was that we never got a cool description of Johnson’s amazing insight that made the mission possible. Yes, we hear about Euler’s rule, but which one? I just wanted a little more.

Still, that’s a pretty minor flaw in an otherwise really fun movie about how science and math can elevate humanity as individuals and as a species. The film is both a plea for meritocracy and a lucid examination of what happens when we fail to achieve it because of irrational prejudice. Hidden figures captures a fascinating moment in American history, when the US put humans in space and the civil rights movement put people of color at the center of politics. Both achievements were firsts and both changed the course of history in ways that still affect us today.

At a time of great uncertainty in the United States, Hidden figures is the perfect balm. It offers an optimistic view of how great this country can be when we unite behind a common cause. And it’s a fun space adventure to boot.

By akfire1

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