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Hidden Figures effectively portrays brilliant women making scientific history

5 January 2017

Despite historical inaccuracies, the new film entertainingly shares the largely unknown story of three African American female “computers” at NASA.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures highlights the accomplishments of the African American women who worked as “computers” at NASA during the dawn of the space program. Credit: Hopper Stone, TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

About halfway through the new film Hidden Figures, talented “computer” Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) types her name on the cover sheet of a NASA report, an act that establishes her coauthorship of the mathematics inside. When engineer Paul Stafford (The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) sees the document, he snappishly tears off the cover sheet and hands it back to her. “Computers don’t sign reports,” he says.

In the days before handheld graphing calculators, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, NASA, relied largely on human computers to perform calculations. Those computers were almost entirely women. Talented female mathematicians often had fewer career options than men with math degrees, and they could be hired in larger numbers and at a lower salary. This was especially true for black women. Johnson was one of perhaps 50 African American women who worked as computers at NACA’s segregated Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.

Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book that inspired the film (see the Physics Today review), said at a recent panel discussion that she is often asked why no one has heard the computers’ stories before. The film’s exchange between Johnson and the fictional Stafford suggests one major reason: Despite the challenging nature of their work, these talented women were seldom given formal credit for their contributions. Like human computers in other fields such as astronomy and military ballistics, they were “only” doing calculations, which was not considered scientific work. The NASA computers were not written out of NASA’s history so much as never included in the first place.

Hidden Figures brings Johnson and her colleagues firmly into the spotlight. The film, like the book it was based on, follows three African American NASA computers: Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Johnson, a mathematical prodigy and the first black woman to attend the University of West Virginia’s graduate school, was a member of NASA’s Space Task Group during the Mercury mission years. John Glenn famously requested that she verify the IBM computer’s calculations before he undertook America’s first full orbital spaceflight.

Vaughan, the oldest of the three, was a high school math teacher before she joined NACA in the 1940s. She was eventually put in charge of the West Computing Group, the home for the African American female computers. She later became one of the first programmers to work on NASA’s IBM computer. Jackson started as a computer and went on to become NASA’s first African American female engineer. She had to petition a Virginia court for the right to attend night courses at all-white Hampton High School before she could enter NASA’s training program.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works with a NASA mission specialist in the wind tunnel. Credit: Hopper Stone, TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Although the film’s script occasionally veers into melodrama, excellent performances keep the story grounded. Henson brings both intensity and vulnerability to the screen version of Johnson; her charisma sells scenes that might otherwise feel trite. Spencer plays Vaughan as a warm mentor and a woman with her fingers on the pulse of the future. She doggedly pursues a promotion to supervisor (a job she is already doing, but without the title or appropriate pay) and insists that “my girls” will learn computer programming in order to keep up with NASA’s technology. As Jackson, Monáe conveys both fierce intelligence and deep frustration. If she were a man, she tells her mentor, she wouldn’t dream about becoming an engineer: “I would already be one.”

Hidden Figures takes place largely within the halls of NASA and in the homes of the three computers, but the film contains hints about the larger historical backdrop of 1960s America. News reports about attacks on civil rights activists and demonstrations against segregation often play in the background. The audience is most effectively reminded of the racial atmosphere of 1960s Virginia when it directly affects the characters. In one scene, Vaughan is not permitted to check out a book about computer programming from the public library because the book is in the whites-only section. The incident is a brief but powerful illustration of the barriers that she and others had to overcome to advance their careers.

The film takes significant license with the historical record, occasionally in frustrating ways. One of its subplots has Johnson running more than half a mile to the only bathroom for colored women on the Langley campus. In real life, according to Shetterly, the no-nonsense Johnson refused to waste her time doing that. She simply used the nearest ladies’ room and silently dared anyone to challenge her on it. The film’s bathroom dash is an effective symbol of the discrimination that Johnson and the others faced, but changing the story also changes our sense of Johnson’s personality.

Although Henson, Spencer, and Monáe are unquestionably the film’s stars, the script allocates significant time to two fictional white NASA employees, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and the above-mentioned Stafford. Harrison and Stafford provide a useful window into NASA’s management, but some of their scenes feel extraneous. They pull screen time away from the three central characters, time that might have been better spent following Jackson’s experience at the all-white night school or Vaughan’s efforts to teach herself programming.

Physics Today readers will likely have another quibble with the film: It contains very little mathematics or physics. Brief mentions of analytic geometry or Euler’s method pass by in a flash, and we get only a very vague sense of what exactly Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were doing for NASA aside from “calculating trajectories.” Translating mathematics onto the big screen is never an easy task, but a fuller explanation of what the computers were doing would only have enhanced viewers’ admiration for the women’s accomplishments.

Despite those weaknesses, Hidden Figures is an entertaining period piece. More than that, it shows us something we rarely see in movies: brilliant women making scientific history. Discussions about how to encourage young people to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields have often pointed to the importance of role models and representation. It is difficult for young people to imagine themselves as scientists if they don’t see anyone who looks like them working in laboratories. A major motion picture about three African American women working at NASA shows audiences a much fuller picture of all the effort that went into one of the 20th century’s signal scientific achievements—and brings well-deserved attention to the people whose contributions were forgotten or went unrecorded because they were “only” doing the math.

Editor’s Note, 5 January: This article was corrected to state that the NACA/NASA Langley lab is in Hampton, Virginia.

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