Watered-down Hidden Figures of the space race

HAVING read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same title before seeing Hidden Figures on the big screen, I found the movie offers a simpler portrayal of the African-American women mathematicians’ roles in the great American space race of the 1960s.

The movie, Hidden Figures, is entertaining, but you don’t walk out of the cinema hall feeling supercharged in the ‘Girls Rule the World’, and ‘hell, yeah’, way, or awed as I was by the narrative in the book.

The movie also offers a straightforward story, and set it in the 1960s era of the US with its growing civil rights movement, and the race to beat Russia into space, and failing when Yuri Gagarin orbited around Earth.

Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) had a dream, to quote Martin Luther King Jr, which he made in 1963.

They could have been more if it weren’t for the laws of the land then.

Their work was pre-Apollo but the Apollo 11 astronauts — John Glenn and Alan Shepard – were part of the tale in the movie which focuses on Glenn’s 1962 Mercury 7 trip around the globe.

Johnson’s double-checking his trajectory calculations against that of the newly-installed IBM 7090 is true, and Glenn’s request that “the girl” check the numbers before he flew, were true.

Her checking the numbers, by pencil and paper, is feel-good celluloid drama! In real-life, she had a few days to do all that.

But the book is like a historical treatise on the technology of that era, the 1950s and then some. It weaves that evolving history into the everyday lives of the mathematicians, with an overarching point of view on education, employment, and politics with its effects on society.

It was also about the work of US’ NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the precursor to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The movie could have been a profound study on race relations, making the story of the perseverance of the three women featured – and thousands of similarly talented women — inarguably aspirational, and inspirational for many cinemagoers.

Instead, the movie is based on three real-life women  who get jobs at Naca in the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. It features some trials and tribulations in the face of racial prejudice at work as “human computers”, and who seem to have found champions… at work, a.k.a. Space Task Group boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), and maybe even computing supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst).

The tribulations at work included the amalgamated prejudiced people in the persons of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), head engineer  at the Space Task Group.

This is not to denigrate the unbiased employment opportunities at Naca or Nasa, or the people then who recognised talent, but the movie could have shown much more of the narrative history behind these spectacular achievements of the women concerned to add depth to a struggle that just has not stopped.

In reality,Vaughan was promoted to supervisor in 1949, becoming the first black supervisor at the NACA. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities were abolished.

While Jackson became Nasa’s first black female engineer in 1958, Johnson did co-author a research report in 1960, the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report. She went on to work on the Apollo programme, including performing trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing. She is still around, at age 98, in Hampton, Virginia. As the closing credits reveal, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, by then president Barack Obama.

Their story was, and is, not only about women being great mathematicians, but also a battle for equal rights and opportunity.

The irony of this struggle – as told in the book – is that these talented women took on jobs to help the US fight a Cold War against Russia, so that the hegemony of their country would emerge the victor – despite it being the very same norms and ideas that enslaved African-Americans.

For these women, it wasn’t about putting some men into space but about feeding their families with the better-paying work, and finding intellectual fulfilment.

The racial prejudice then was not just about the “coloured only” bathroom or the attending of a segregated school, as shown in the movie, but also separate housing, playgrounds, water-drinking stations, and so on.

Without the racism, the fact of these African-American female mathematicians being an integral part of the space race would be just another ‘brilliant people’ movie tale, filled with Fortran, analytical geometery, corsets and high heels for the ladies!

The pivotal scene where Johnson tells her boss why she has to disappear from her table for 40 minutes ever so often, is accompanied by an original Pharrel Williams song called Runnin’. The full soundtrack also features the voices of Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Lalah Hathaway and cast member Monáe.

Hidden Figures is a typical watered-down made-in-Hollywood movie, given a song-and-dance treatment of a terribly important part of American history. If the math bores you, you can always get a large popcorn.

**This review appeared in the new straits times.


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