In the early 1960s, all of America looked to NASA as they raced against the Soviet Union to put people into space. The task was enormous and challenging, and it took a tremendous number of keen minds to do all of the necessary calculations. When the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit around the earth, the tension mounted.
Even though a large number of African Americans were mathematicians and engineers at NASA, the Jim Crow societal patterns of separation between “white” and “colored” were part of life at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, just as they were in the rest of that state. While the work of African American mathematicians and engineers was needed and even appreciated, they were still sometimes treated as second-class citizens.
The three women profiled in Hidden Figures, a movie based on a recently published book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, are just a few of the people who broke down barriers of race and gender at Langley. Katherine Johnson was one of the human “computers”, instrumental in helping to put both Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space. Dorothy Vaughan became proficient in the computer language FORTRAN and helped bring NASA into the computer age by acquiring expertise with the first IBM they brought in. Mary Jackson became the first black female engineer at NASA.
While these three are representative of a much larger presence of brilliant black, female minds at NASA, director Theodore Melfi uses their stories to show both the frustration of being overlooked because of skin color and gender, as well as the way that circumstances necessitated a shift in what really mattered. Once the need for teamwork among great minds overshadowed the desire for maintaining the social status quo, many barriers fell away at NASA.
The film itself is rather by-the-book, but Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe shine, bringing the story to crackling life with the help of a rollicking soundtrack and lovely period costumes and sets. Kevin Costner is a strong, understated presence as a supervisor, Al Harrison, who ultimately cares more about getting his job done in the quickest, best way possible than he does about sticking to society’s arbitrary standards about skin color. He tells Katherine that he needs people who can “look beyond the numbers.” He doesn’t immediately realize it, but he also needs people who can look beyond color.
As a society, we continue to undermine the abilities and achievements of those who are “different.” Many Americans push back against immigration. But according to Forbes, 25 percent of U.S. doctors are foreign-born. It is vital that we all “look beyond,” recognizing that people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds are “fearfully and wonderfully made” if we wish to make the most of the gifts God has given each one.
Hidden Figures celebrates the courage and intelligence of those whose contributions were not always recognized, in spite of the fact that they helped make it possible for astronauts to take their first brave forays into space. (20th Century Fox)