There’s a reason Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, Texas hosted a free screening of Hidden Figures for nearly 3000 students and showtimes are is still available across the country. This is a MUST SEE film.
Hidden Figures is a story in a time capsule of sorts, a hidden treasure of American history about three brilliant Black mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorthy Vaughan and Mary Thompson’s immense contributions to the success of America’s Space Race during a tumultuous period of intense sexism and racial oppression. These women’s efforts not only advanced the launch of NASA’s astronaut John Glenn into orbit, but accelerated the role in which women and Black people are respected as professionals, intellectually and as leaders.
From multiple Academy Award nods, to boasting $196 million and counting in box office receipts, there’s no overlooking the incredible performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, nor the detailed vision of director Theodore Melfi. However, there is much to be said in terms of hidden lessons and messages that Black people should take note of when watching Hidden Figures.
Normalize Extraordinary Black Minds and Rebuild the Village
The film opens with 8 year old Katherine, already advanced into sixth grade at a Negro school, visualizing geometric shapes in her surroundings. Katherine’s teacher, principal and community recognized her genius. As a village her community took the initiative of collecting funds to invest in her promising future to, and support her family’s move to a city offering higher education at West Virginia Collegiate Institute. The reality is all Black people are geniuses and multi-geniuses. It is our lack of development and investment ourselves that stagnates our intellectual capacity for greatness. Perhaps we should study the works of Dr. Amos Wilson’s, “Awakening the Natural Genius in Black Children,” “Developmental Psychology of the Black Child,” and follow the example of the “hidden figures” in young Katherine’s life, who thought it their obligation to help develop and support a Black child’s potential.
“They let women at NASA do some things and it’s not because they wear skirts! It’s because we wear glasses!” – Katherine
Women have come a long way in the workforce if one recalls the scene I refer to as “good work but good riddance,” wherein Mary Thompson was working as a Computer on the space capsule when her white male colleagues decided to initiate the atmospheric reentry heat shield capacity testing countdown. With just 10 seconds to clear the hazardous testing zone, Mary tussled with her high heel shoe stuck in the floor vent, eventually leaving it behind while her colleagues observed her as a spectacle behind the safety glass window.
At time when women’s spark of enthusiasm was expected to be the sight of the latest household appliance, Mary Thompson aspired to become a NASA engineer. While this did not appear attainable to her husband, being both Black and a woman, she would prove to change his mind and gamer his support.
“They let women at NASA do some things and it’s not because they wear skirts! It’s because we wear glasses!” Katherine punctuated a turbulent introduction to the, achieved and handsome, unconscious male chauvinist, Colonel Jim Johnson. He quickly retreated from his charming babbling blunder of inquiry about Katherine’s job, nervous I suspect in the presence of intellectual, ambitious, leading, BEAUTIFUL Black woman.
Gender and Race Clash
The politics of race and gender are blurred yet defined at times during the film, however ultimately the power dynamic remains the same, whiteness over Blackness. Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of Mary, Katherine, Dorothy and the other Black women computers, waddles on the line of supporting and upholding the illusion white supremacy, versus aligning herself with women who happen to Black, brilliant could benefit of all women’s progress.
Cheer, sneer or neither. Mrs. Michael’s has the duty of informing Katherine’s she’s promoted to a coveted position of “super-computer” to join the men as their new computer. The tasking of walking a “colored” woman into such a role of advancement beyond white woman was not exactly an externality of the women’s suffrage movement she hoped for nor anticipated.
The fickleness of this relationship to her Black female staff, is a microscopic glimpse of the relationship between white feminism and Black women. Mrs. Michael’s patience and superiority is questioned with each insistent status update and request from Dorothy Vaughn, who is pursuing a rightful earned supervisory title and pay for the job description she clearly is fulfilling. Though Dorthy is denied, it does not derail her from strategizing to win. While Dorothy is frustrated from white resistance on the job, her Black and womanist loyalty is not subjected envy or sabotage for friends, Katherine and Mary who are eventually promoted before her. Instead of willie lynching them she insistently on supporting their rise.
Carving out Success Despite Racism and Sexism
Katherine is welcomed into her exciting new position by new work colleague, Paul Stafford, who uses permanent marker to black out “classified” information, essential to verify the accuracy of computations. Amazingly Katherine manages to cling to solitude in the face of hostility to focus on the impossible workload despite blatant sabotage to prevent her success. Paul plunges oversized work books onto Katherine’s desk to dummy check the staffs computations to which she finds an error to his dismay. Even when the world is against us, the well developed and trained superior Black mind will overcome if we focus on the mission.
Find comfort in the discomfort on the journey to success. Katherine pours a cup of coffee from the only pot which has been used by all white colleagues. Transformed into grey alien before everyone’s eyes in shock and horror, she is slapped with the bitter taste reminding her she’s stepped out of “place.” We are only placed in within the confines which we tolerate and accept. A labeled “colored” coffee pot appears the next day.
The mental and spiritual fortitude of Katherine pushing through the countless blocks from Stafford’s preventing her from participating in NASA briefings. She displays seemingly small but bold assertions of power and confidence. There’s riveting moment of upholding her Black self-respect when Katherine’s BOLD enough to challenges Harrison’s reprimand for being MIA unbeknownst to him for bathroom breaks. The privilege of being oblivious to her daily reality running across NASA’s campus, sometimes in torrential downpour just to use the only colored restroom available. The juxtaposition of Black minds assisting white power during the space race, yet they can’t pour from the same coffee pot. Only does this realization become evident to Harrison who finally declares, “here at NASA we all pee the same color.
”While Katherine is fighting bathroom and coffee wars, Mary has petition the court to attend courses at all white HS offering exclusive classes for NASA training engineers. She outwits the system by presenting her case in a manner that favors the state to grant her access rather than focusing on herself. Meanwhile, Dorothy runs covert operations to at NASA to train and stay ahead but no before breaking some rules.
Sometimes You have to Break the Rules
Like the actual Hidden Figures themselves, vital information is often hidden from Black people. Just as Al Harrison suggests to Katherine, you must be willing to “look beyond the numbers” or shrewdly find the hidden knowledge that usually rooted in our Afrikanity. Dorothy did just that, trusting her insight and institution as to the knowledge she would need to develop before her and the other computers jobs became obsolete. Like an ancestor working defiantly towards justice she, breaches the whites only section of the public library to steal (reparations) a specialty book needed on computer programing not available in the colored section.
Together We Are Stronger
An important thread woven into the building of success for these 3 BRILLIANT Black women is their unity and support system. Katherine, a mother and widow worked long hours but had the support of her mother. Eventually meeting Col. Johnson, the man of her life who would marry and support her.
Mary husband did seemed slightly jealous of her success but he too stepped aside, encouraging her to kick down doors as a woman engineer.
Dorothy did not with hold information for her “competition” her staff, she trained them on Fortran to program and maintain the IBM-7090 DPS computer. Her loyalty for self versus the collective was tested when she was finally offered a supervisory position over the IBM computer programmers. Rather take the position knowing her staff would eventually be jobless, she rejected the position unless her entire staff of 35 could join. Black people must stay ahead of the curve however possible and help one another along the way. The future is STEM, we must learn it and teach it to secure job creation for our people.
From carpooling everyday, family togethers, playing matchmaker for Katherine, and just being great friends, sisters to one another it aided in each persons success, being in the unique situation that most other Black people could not relate to, working for NASA during the space race in the middle of the Civil Rights movement.
The quality of our relationships are pivotal to our journey achievement. No one has ever done it alone and it is essential we operate as Dorothy did, “I am because we are” (Ubuntu).
The Future is Ours
Thanks to the contributions Dorothy, Katherine, Mary and other hidden figures, the Freedom 7 made successful orbits into space. They would take flight in their personal careers as Dorothy Vaughan became NASA’s first African-American Supervisor, worked as a Fortran specialist, and is regarded by NASA as one of the most brilliant minds. Mary Thompson became NASA’s first Black female Engineers and co-authored her first report, Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds. Katherine. G. Johnson went on to perform calculations for Apollo II mission to the moon and the Space Shuttle.
There’s a scene where JFK addresses the nation about the successful orbit and ambitions to land on the moon, yet all minds and hearts in America at work they cannot figure out how to justly end the race problem. News coverage of the Freedom Riders were bombed on earth and white people were planning voyages to the moon and beyond.
As bright as Katherine shined calculating the most precise flight reentry trajectory she is first to be relieved of duty when the position is no longer needed. Even when our the best we are disposable. A though send off was gifted with pearls from Harrison and she was re-assigned the moment they needed her again she was available by request of John Glen.
In a world that teaches Black people their story began with slavery and as Afrikans they had culture nor civilization, our Hidden Figures proved when given the opportunity, even under circumstances created for us to fail we are greatness. Black people have the brightest minds on the planet. At a time when our primary outlets to exhibit our brilliance were white owned institutions, we now have the opportunity to develop and master our talents for ourselves. The future is ours and opportunities to build for our people is BOUNDLESS.
We can change the game and build technology that is in harmony with nature, safe for humans to use and reduces the complexities of life’s struggles. We would be remiss to the think the struggle is over and we do not have an obligation to provide jobs and create opportunities for ourselves. The final interaction with Mrs. Michael who played an passive-aggressive antagonist relationship with Ms. Vaughan is telling:
Mrs. Michael: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against ya’ll.”
Ms. Vaughan: “I know you may believe that.”