The history of science and innovation is filled with untold stories. Many of us have heard the names of the people who made the ultimate discovery or who dared to test a theory in the face of uncertain outcomes. Unfortunately, this often means that those who worked in the background, or those who were not the “front face” of the discovery got left out of the story. Even worse, narratives about science would most often focus on men and ignore the achievements of women. And if you happened to be a woman of color?… well, you can guess how that would play out.
So, let’s be honest: how many of you had heard of the women who worked for NASA doing complex mathematical calculations for the first space shots before Hidden Figures came out? I’m presuming that the number of you raising your hands isn’t very high. I don’t think I’ve personally spoken to anyone that was less than astonished to not only find out about these women, but to realize that their contribution was downplayed to near non-existence. In fact, the only reason I had any idea about them at all was because I read a reference to them in a book about the space race (and that wasn’t much). To my shame, it wasn’t until the movie came out that I realized it was based on a book! That’s now added to my to-read pile…
Of course, this means that I can’t comment on the movie’s accuracy to real events, but I can comment on what I saw on the screen. And I definitely liked what I saw.
Let’s start with the casting. It took three very strong actresses to carry the main characters, because they had to play equally strong women who were nevertheless still playing within the rules of a stratified society. Taraji P. Henson was wonderful as Katherine, the young woman who worked with the Space Task Force on the calculations that got John Glenn into orbit (and safely back down again). I think Henson had the hardest job of the three main characters, because she was the only one that spent most of the movie portraying what it was like for an African-American woman to work in a group of white men in a segregated city. She had to be, by turns, intimidated, intelligent, assertive, frantic, fiery, and a host of other emotions. A good chunk of it was done without her ever saying a word–her expressions and body language did the talking for her. Octavia Spencer was, to me, the most intriguing of the trio as Dorothy–she had an air of quiet command and no-nonsense work ethic. Her low-key rebellion leading to her learning of Fortran and the subsequent changes it brings to her and rest of the computers was awesome to watch. Janelle Monae’s character of Mary was one that I initially didn’t warm to, but once she began her fight to take the classes needed to become an engineer, I found myself rooting for her. By that point, Monae was portraying Mary with a strength that came from her flamboyance, but was still capable of showing her wit and dignity when faced with a judge.
The men in the movie weren’t as well-served by the plot, which makes sense considering that the women were the focus, but to me it was still noticeable. For example, Mary’s husband (played by Aldis Hodge, better known from the TV show Leverage) seems to be in the story purely to be an Angry Black Man stereotype. Granted, since this movie takes place during the Civil Rights movement, anger is understandable, but his character (barring one quick scene) never shows any other emotion. Kevin Costner did a good job as Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Force, playing someone smart and driven to succeed. The character of Paul Stafford, one of the lead engineers in the Task Force, is played by Jim Parsons (Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory), and I don’t know if he was the right choice for this role. It wasn’t that he did a bad job–Parsons is an excellent actor–but there was something that I can’t put my finger on that made the role an uncomfortable fit for him. (And what was with his pants being pulled up halfway to his chest? Don’t think I didn’t notice that.)
Thankfully, the women are more than strong enough to carry the story, which is a powerful one. The plot did an excellent job of balancing the scientific leaps and bounds of the space program with the burgeoning civil rights issues that threatened to hobble some of the brightest minds in NASA. Some scenes were hard to watch, and not because the racism was overt and malicious. On the contrary, the racism was so matter-of-fact and underplayed (but still very much in the foreground, oddly enough) that you get a sense of just how pervasive it was. From the fact that nobody recognizes that Katherine has to walk half a mile to get to a bathroom she can use, to Mary’s required engineering classes being held at a segregated school, to the unapologetic stares as the women interact with the white NASA employees, it’s just there. It’s always there. And it made the moments when science and progress were more important than cultural norms all the more powerful.
Ultimately, I think the film succeeds most in its smallest moments: Katherine’s “Not because we wear skirts, but because we wear glasses” line; Dorothy’s conversation with Kirsten Dunst’s character in the bathroom late in the film; Mary’s impassioned speech to the judge as she petitions to go to classes at the segregated school; John Glenn approaching the female computers to shake their hands and talk to them; there are so many to choose from. And they all underscore that these wonderful scientific advances wouldn’t have been possible without these people, strengths and flaws and all.
This movie certainly earned the Oscar nomination that it garnered for Best Picture of 2016. Although I fear it will lose to the juggernaut that is La La Land, I would love to see this film–and these ladies–get the acclaim they deserve.
And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to read the book.