Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie: Hidden Figures

The movie Hidden Figures tells the remarkable story of three gifted African-American women mathematicians who made significant contributions to the American space program during a time when segregation and racial discrimination against blacks and women was an ongoing problem in America.

The film opens with a brief backstory of the three women,Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  Katherine Johnson is the focus of the film but Vaughan and Jackson's experiences are also chronicled. Katherine is shown to be gifted in mathematics and her parents are encouraged to enroll her in a new school where her abilities are further developed. The film moves quickly to the year 1961 where the three women work at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The tone of the film is set early one when the three women are at the side of the road where Dorothy is working on getting their car running again. A state trooper pulls up, overly suspicious and demanding identification when the women insist they work for NASA. It's obvious he can't believe NASA hires blacks and much less black women. Appealing to his patriotism, the convince the trooper to give them an escort to the facility. The ensuing race to Langley is one of the film's comedic moments.

All three work in the West Area Computers which was a segregated area of Langley as "computers", a name given to those who solved complex mathematical equations before the mainframe computer was in use. Dorothy hopes to become a supervisor but she is repeatedly passed over, while Mary aspires to be an engineer, a career path not open to women and certainly not a black woman. They are all working towards putting a man in space and attempting to catch up to the Russians who have successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik. To that end, Dorothy's supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) visits the West Area Computers and requests Dorothy send her a computer who can do complex math quickly. Dorothy immediately suggests Katherine whom she identifies as someone who can do anything you can throw at her.

Katherine is sent to work with the Space Task Force headed up by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The Space Task Force is in a different building with no bathrooms for colored women. Her initial days in the Space Task Force are fraught with discrimination. She is mistaken for a cleaning lady, given calculations to check that have been severely redacted and is forced to use a separate coffee flask. As there are no colored bathrooms Katherine must leave her desk for twenty minutes to run across the center to the colored bathrooms in the west area. Her main nemesis is Paul Stafford who works to make Katherine's job as difficult as possible and refuses to allow her to sign her name to the daily reports.

Katherine's incredible mathematical genius soon becomes apparent.  Katherine's first assignment is to verify all the calculations for Alan Shepard's mission, a parabolic trajectory which will send him into suborbital flight. The Space Task Center needs to know his exact trajectory from lift-off to splash-down. Despite being given calculations with much information redacted, Katherine is able to accomplish her task. Shepard's mission is a huge success but the most daunting one was to come.

During this time, Dorothy Vaughan's attempts to get promoted to supervisor are thwarted by Vivian Mitchell. Mary Jackson is sent over to engineering where she meets aeronautical engineer Karl Zielinski who encourages her to pursue an engineering degree. However, despite having degrees in math and physical science, Mary discovers that she needs to take night courses at Hampton High School which is a segregated school.

Two 7090 IBM computers,NASA during Project Mercury 1962
Taken by Christopher C. Kraft
After working on Alan Shepard's mission, Harrison's group focused on the math necessary to send astronaut John Glenn into an orbital path around the Earth and then safely returning him. This was the main goal of the Mercury project. Glenn would attain an orbital path after blasting off from earth atop a powerful rocket. In the movie there seems to be some issue as to which rocket would be used. The Redstone rockets, developed by Von Braun continue to crash. Katherine's calculations demonstrate that the rocket is too heavy and does not have the power to achieve the required trajectory required to orbit the earth. Katherine Johnson, using math convinces her coworkers that this must be atop the more powerful Atlas rocket rather than the Redstone. It is Glenn's mission that the movie focuses on.

Katherine's job is to verify all the calculations but she appears to be hindered by the racist environment at NASA that sees her taking twenty-minute bathroom breaks because she has to run across the compound to use the colored bathroom. Frustrated with this situation, Harrison confronts Katherine who explains what she is experiencing working at NASA and in an iconic scene, Harrison is seen smashing the sign for the colored bathroom. After it's announced that John Glenn (Glen Powell) will be the astronaut to fly in the first orbital mission he is taken on a tour of Langley. The black staff is separated from the white staff and the intent is that they will not meet Glenn. In Hidden Figures, Glenn is portrayed as the consummate gentleman, kind and courteous. In the movie this comes across quite clearly. He is shown as determined to meet the African-American staff when it's evident NASA brass aren't interested in him doing so.

As Katherine works on the Mercury project, the film explores the situations of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to a lesser extent. NASA sees the arrival of the IBM 7090 mainframe computer but the computer sits idle in a room because the technicians cannot get it working. Harrison is disgusted by this failure. Dorothy on her way back to the west computer group sees the computer room empty and decides to learn more about it and how to program it. She recognizes that her computers will no longer be needed once the mainframe is up and running, so she decides to learn programming and to teacher her computers as well. In this way they will be able to save their jobs. She is forced to steal a book on FORTRAN programming from the public library because as a black woman she is unable to sign out books. Dorothy learns FORTRAN, gets the IBM working and sets to teaching her computers the language. Mary Johnson, encouraged by mentor Karl Zielinski, applies to the court and is granted permission to attend night classes to earn the credits she needs for engineering school.

The climax of the film is Glenn's historic flight into space. His mission had been delayed several times due to various issues, but the Friendship 7 was launched into orbit on February 20,  1962. Similar to what real life, Glenn wanted Johnson to verify the trajectory computed by the new IBM computer,  "get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go."

Besides portraying the exception mathematical abilities of Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson, Hidden Figures also shows that these women had lives outside of NASA: they were working mothers with children, wives with husbands and still had to conform to social conventions for women. Although the historical accuracy is fairly good for the different NASA missions shown the film does contain some inaccuracies. The overarching theme of the movie is that systemic racial discrimination and sexist bias was a significant factor in impeding America's progress in the space race. However, that's not exactly an accurate portrayal of the situation at NASA for this time period.  For example, in Hidden Figures Dorothy Vaughan does not become a supervisor until the end of the movie which is sometime in1962. In fact Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of the colored computers in 1949, becoming the first black manager. Katherine Johnson is shown repeatedly running across the compound to use the "colored" bathroom. However, when NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) became NASA in 1958, segregated facilities (bathrooms, dining areas and work areas) were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan was part of a racially integrated Analysis and Computation Division that included both men and women. In the film Mary Jackson also does not earn her engineering degree until later on but in fact Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer in 1958. And Katherine Johnson began working in the Space Task Group in 1958. She also had co-authored a report in 1960 on the equations for determining the orbital spaceflight of a spacecraft with a known landing.

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae all give outstanding performances supported by a capable cast that includes Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Glen Powell. The film includes much historic film footage including news casts from the early 1960's. Hidden Figures not only presents side of the space race that many viewers are completely unfamiliar with, it also is an important vehicle for promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers to young girls who might see the film. This is a film not to be missed especially if you have an interest in the space race of the 1960's.

Those wanting to explore further the story of the black women mathematicians who were the hidden figures behind the NASA space program and victory in the space race are encouraged to read Margot Lee Shetterly's, Hidden Figure.

For more information on Dorothy Vaughan see her biography page at NASA's website.

For more information on Katherine Johnson see her biography page at NASA's website.

Mary Jackson's biography page can also be found on the NASA website.

For information on specific NASA missions the NASA webpage, "Humans In Space" has detailed information.

One of the trailers for Hidden Figures:

No comments: