I know that I promised my next post would be with the historical consultant for The Eagle. But I just saw Hidden Figures (2016, dir. Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) and I really wanted to get my thoughts about it down in blog form. So I promise I’ll get to the interview in my next post.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this movie, you may want to put off reading this, since I talk about major plot points.
Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. All three were originally hired to work as ‘computers’, women who did the low-status work of laborious mathematical calculating and double-checking the work of higher status male scientists in the era before the birth of electronic computers. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematician whose calculations proved invaluable to the launch of the Atlas rocket that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the head of the ‘Western’ Computing group, a group of African-American female computers kept separate from the ‘Eastern’ Computing group, who were white women; realizing that her job will eventually be made obsolete by the arrival of an IBM computer, Vaughan teaches herself Fortran and becomes an expert in computers. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) pursues her ambition of being an engineer for NASA.
All three women encounter racist obstacles at NASA. Jackson struggles with the fact that the only bathroom African-American women can use is located literally half a mile away on the Langley campus where she works, forcing her to take extended breaks simply to use the bathroom and thereby drawing the ire of the division head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Vaughan is long overdue for a promotion; she has been acting as the supervisor of the Western Computing group, but hasn’t been given the title or the pay of a supervisor, and the woman she reports to, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) doesn’t seem to care. Jackson needs to take night classes in order to apply for the engineering position, but the only school that offers such classes is segregated, and she has to persuade a judge to allow her to attend the classes.
Ultimately, all three overcome their obstacles. Jackson repeatedly demonstrates her invaluableness to Harrison, who increasingly bends the rules to allow her to participate in the work of getting Glenn safely into space and back. Vaughan masters the newly-installed IBM computer before anyone else, and then teaches the other members of the Western Computing group how to work with it, thus saving all of their jobs and giving them a future on the cutting edge of computer science. This convinces Mitchell to arrange Vaughn’s over-due promotion. Jackson persuades the judge to let her attend the night school classes she needs and by the end of the film is on her way to becoming an engineer.
The story is well-told all around. The script is funny and does a good job of making the mathematical problems of early space flight intelligible to a general audience. The performances are all solid, especially Henson’s. And the costume designer does a very subtle job of highlighting the exclusion of African-American women from NASA; the white men tend to vanish into a sea of identical white dress shirts and dark ties, while the black women stand out in demur but colorful skirts and blouses, highlighting the absence of ‘colored’ people whenever they’re not around.
The story it tells is an important one. These three women all played important roles at NASA and made major contributions to American space exploration for several decades. Their story deserves to be told, and it’s exciting to see the movie do so amazingly well at the box office. All too often, American history is presented as the accomplishments of white men, and Hidden Figures does a good job of reminding us that women of color have made great contributions to the country as well. It’s particularly nice to see a biopic about African-Americans who aren’t entertainers or athletes. These women are important not because they’re pretty or can sing, but because they’re smart. And the film confronts the problems of segregation head-on, particularly in Johnson and Jackson’s storylines. Americans need a reminder of just how ugly and unjust segregation and Jim Crow were.
The problem with the film is that in the pursuit of its goal of highlighting the struggles these three women had with segregation and racism, it significantly misrepresents what was going on at NASA in the 60s.
NACA and NASA
The organization we think of NASA began life in 1915 as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It existed until 1958, when it was shut down and replaced with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NACA began hiring African-Americans to work as computers already in 1941, but like many branches of the American government in the period, NACA was segregated. It had a system of bathrooms, cafeterias, and other facilities for whites, and less well-maintained parallels for blacks.
However, when NASA was formed in 1958, it wasn’t segregated. For example, NASA abandoned the system of segregated bathrooms, even though many of its properties were carried over from NACA. The story about Johnson having to run back and forth between buildings to use the bathrooms is actually a story that Jackson told about NACA in the 1950s. In the film, Johnson has to make several bathroom trips, once in the rain, trying to do her calculating work on the toilet so as not to fall too far behind in her work. Finally, when she breaks down and complains to Harrison, Harrison angrily goes out and uses a crowbar to tear down the sign labelling a particular bathroom as being for colored women. It’s a great scene that produces cheers in the audience, but it’s simply untrue.
Similarly, Vaughan was denied the supervisory position she deserved for some time, but that was during the 1950s. By the time the film opens in 1961, Vaughan had already been a supervisor for 3 years. Jackson was offered a position in an engineering team and then had to find a way to get into those classes, whereas the film suggests that she is kept from applying for the position because Mitchell is somewhat racist and unwilling to bend on the rules. So far as I can determine, the film consistently projects the segregation of 1950s NACA half a decade backwards onto 1960s NASA.
NASA in the 1960s was actually a tool for desegregation. Already when he was the Senate Majority leader, Lyndon Johnson saw NASA as a way to advance African Americans by hiring and promoting them into better-paying and more respectable positions. It’s no coincidence that NASA desegregated in 1958; Johnson was the head of the subcommittee that oversaw the passage of government act that created the agency.
Katherine Johnson herself denied experiencing the treatment the film shows her receiving. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research…You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Likewise, Jackson only recalled one instance in which she felt disrespected, and the man involved subsequently apologized when he realized that he was in the wrong.
So by painting early 1960s NASA as a strongly segregated environment, the film is somewhat unfairly tarring NASA for NACA’s failings, and denying NASA’s modest role in helping advance the interests of African-Americans. The real racism that the women experienced in this period seems to have been from the communities around Langley. Vaughn had difficulties find a place to stay. In the 1960s, many of the black male engineers encountered threats and violence from the white locals, and one white NASA employee was so badly injured and threatened that he left NASA entirely. Had it chosen to, the film could have made its point more honestly by contrasting the comparatively accepting environment of NASA with the much more racist environment beyond its gates.
Racism or Sexism?
The more I think about the film and read about the background, the more I find myself thinking that the real problem Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson experienced wasn’t so much racism (although they clearly did encounter some of that) but sexism. Consistently, there is a pattern of the men doing the important, high-status work (such as figuring out the physics of space flight and designing the capsules) while the women (both black and white) are relegated to the low-status work of computing, even though the film makes clear that doing so is a waste of their talents, especially Johnson’s. Apart from Johnson, the only other woman in the Space Task group, Ruth, appears to be a secretary, and there are no women at all in the engineering group that Jackson is involved in.
Johnson repeatedly insists that she needs to be involved in the key meetings where decisions are made, because excluding her means that she has to wait to get the data she needs, which often renders her work obsolete by the time she’s finished it. She persuades Harrison to bend the rules for her to sit in on briefings with the Air Force, and eventually he invites her into Mission Control when Glenn’s flight happens (a decision that the film claims probably saved Glenn’s life). The issue here is not that she’s African-American, but that she’s a woman and the men around her are uncomfortable with her presence.
While the film suggests that the white computers earned more than the black computers, the truth is that the two groups were paid the same, but that their pay was 40% less than the equivalent male pay, even during the NACA period.
So I think that the real problem with the film, at least for me, is that it was trying too hard to make its point about segregation, a point it could only make by misrepresenting the degree of segregation at NASA. Instead, the real story in the material seems to be the way that NASA was excluding women of talent from important roles. Their obstacles were clearly intersectional, involving both their race and their gender, but the film discourages us from thinking too much about gender by highlighting a simultaneous divide of gender and race; the scientists and engineers are all white men and the computers almost entirely black women (the exception being Vivian, who leads the white female computers, but who is never shown making any intellectual contributions to the project and who mostly acts as an administrative obstacle to Vaughn). The result is that whenever gender emerges as an issue, race is almost always there at the same time. There is one scene when Johnson’s future husband (an African-American) makes a sexist remark, but that’s almost the only moment when gender is highlighted as an issue. So the film tends to subsume gender issues under race issues in a way that makes it hard for the audience to see the gender component of the problem.
None of this makes Hidden Figures a bad movie, merely a movie that privileges its message over the facts. It tells an important story that people need to know. I just wish it had been a bit more honest with the facts.
(I feel a need to point out that I’m not a specialist in either American history or NASA history. I’m basing my comments on information I’ve been able to dig up online, and it’s possible that I’ve missed evidence that NASA was a more segregated environment than I realize. I’m certainly not suggesting that NASA was magically free of racism in the 1960s. It clearly wasn’t. I’m sure that these women encountered many obstacles due to their race, but they weren’t the specific obstacles the film offers.)
Correction: An earlier version of this post described John Glenn as the first American in space. I should have written that he was the first American to orbit the Earth, since Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom both flew high enough to be in what is defined as space prior to Glenn’s flight, but neither of them achieved orbit. I regret the mistake. Thanks to T Rosenzveig for catching it!
Want to Know More?
Hidden Figures is still in the theaters, so it’s not available on Amazon. However, if you want to do some reading about these women, their story is told in Hidden Figures, by Mary Lee Shetterly. Another book about them is Sue Bradford Edwards’ Hidden Human Computers. Richard Paul and Steven Moss’s We Could Not Fail discusses the history of African-Americans in the space program.
Finally, you could look at Steven Moss’s unpublished master’s thesis, NASA and Racial Equality in the South, 1961-1968, which is available online.