“Hidden Figures” cast members Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae shed light on how three African American women crunched the numbers to get John Glenn and his team of astronauts into space at NASA. They set examples for women today in the importance of believing in yourself and constantly pushing the envelope in a world full of entitled men. It’s a common misconception that women “shouldn’t be mathematicians” or they should not “think like a man” when it comes to science, technology or any other male-dominated fields. But these women went against misogynistic ideologies to defend their intellectual abilities modeled after the real-world examples set by Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
The film was so good that I actually saw it twice--once with my mom in a theatre full of women on its premiere weekend and once with my boyfriend for a Saturday date night after its release several weeks prior. It was interesting to see how the demographics impacted the reactions of those two completely different audiences. When I went with my mom, we laughed out loud, had back and forth commentary with other women and even said the occasional, “Oh no she didn’t.” But when I went the second time, most girls were with their boyfriends and stayed completely quiet with expressions of disbelief to some of the negative comments in the movie. I think that in itself speaks volumes as to how we interact with the opposite sex as women, making ourselves smaller just to appear “ladylike” when in reality, we should be just as vocal as we are behind closed doors with our moms. Onto the meat of the film, though...
Taraji Henson played the role of Katherine G. Johnson, who was chosen to be on the “human computer” team that does analytical geometry, by hand, for NASA in order to get the astronauts into and out of space safely. She was the only woman and the only African American in the Langley Research Center’s Flight Research Division in the early 1960s.
Being requested to do analytical geometry was a great accomplishment for any woman of this time period, but it didn’t come without challenges. In the movie, Johnson had to run between buildings, literally, to use one of the only black bathrooms on-site in the West Area Computing Division, which segregated the blacks from the whites. In real life, the frustration of segregated bathrooms, segregated work rooms and even segregated computers were a point of contention, however, there were bathrooms available for the African Americans on-site -- they were just really hard to find. In the movie, Johnson was judged every day by the men in her division and was even stripped of her title once the job was done and made to report back to her white female boss in the West division. She wasn’t allowed to wear jewelry or skirts or dresses below the knee either, go figure.
In reviewing this film, I was inspired by the determination of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson. Johnson was responsible for launching U.S. men into space; Vaughn became the first African American supervisor in the Analysis and Computation Division of NASA because she taught herself FORTRAN programming, even though she wasn’t allowed to check out the book legally from the white libraries; and Jackson assisted the senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki and got an appeal from a judge to attend night school at an all-white college to become an engineer herself.
Determination and persistence will eventually get you what you want and deserve in life. You have to fight for what you want, especially as a woman, but even moreso if you’re an African American woman. We all may be equal by the law’s means, but racist and sexist attitudes that still exist today requires us to step up and speak out when we are being treated unfairly just like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson did in a time period when it was far more difficult to stand up for your rights than it is now.