Based on the New York Times bestseller, Hidden Figures challenged the vision and interpretation of the audience through a forced raw reflection on our history; both as an individual and society as a whole. The book and the film depict visions of race, ethnicity, and gender issues and how they intersect throughout the times in which the real-life accounts took place. In the book, Margot Lee Shutterfly tells the story of three black women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. The writing encapsulates a vision that was intimidating and filled with insuperable barriers during its time.
The story begins in the midst of World War II, a time in which the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, a support facility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), sought to hire a number of junior mathematical analysts to perform aeronautical research to help further the war efforts. At this time, NACA’s mathematicians, commonly referred to as “computers,” were predominantly women, and segregation still dominated American culture, more specifically in the South with the still implemented Jim Crow laws. Despite the still racially segregated culture, the Langley facility begins to employ a number of female African American “computers,” but places them in a separate office known as the West Area.
Katherine Johnson, incredibly mathematically gifted from a young age, is one of the women chosen to be employed at the Langley facility. In one of the first scenes shown in the movie, she can be seen wearing pantyhose typically meant for white women. This is a strong representation of the colorism at the time, as even though she has secured a job within a federal agency, she is attempting to portray the attire of a typical white woman of the time. While trying to fix her broken down car on her way to work, she and the other two main characters are approached by a police officer, who immediately accuses them of being disrespectful and makes racially and gender-charged remarks that he was not aware that NASA employed people of their race and gender. When the officer offers to give them an escort, the driver remarks that it is a “god dang miracle,” that three negro women are chasing a white male police officer on the highway. This scene sets the tone for the race and gender-based narrative upon which the story is largely based.
With a rising need for a “computer” capable of analytical geometry and the lack of such personnel in the East Area (the unsegregated facility), Katherine is granted the opportunity. This was a bigger deal in the 1960s than today. The NASA website states that the predominant number of employees in this field at the time were white males, specifically in higher level jobs and fields. Due to being far below the current national average of employment in federal positions for African Americans and women at the time (around 20%), NASA sought to prove they were significantly representing women and African Americans in the workplace (history.nasa.gov).
Upon Johnson’s arrival at the East facility, her credentials are immediately questioned by her supervisor, Al Harrison, and Harrison’s secretary informs her that they will not warm up to her, and not to expect such. When asked to double check the numbers ran by her white counterparts, she is highly resented. When Jackson fulfills her duty to check over numbers ran by her white counterparts, she immediately finds errors, to which everyone is shocked. They then pull her into a room and interrogate her as to how she was able to do so, despite only being offered a fraction of the overall data, due to not having the proper clearance for classified information. Being surprised with her quality work, and being confirmed to not be Russian, she is granted the appropriate clearance by Harrison, in order to be able to do her job more effectively. This first step towards Katherine further advancing her credentials within NASA is perhaps best represented by a quote from Shutterfly’s book, in which she presents the argument that “the Space Program and the civil rights movement had shared a similar optimism, a certain idealism about American democracy and the country’s newfound drive to distribute the blessings of democracy to all its citizens (Shutterfly, Chapter 23).”
Beyond being doubted for her work capabilities, a number of everyday activities are utilized to show the racial and gender tensions in Johnson’s new position. When initially asking where the ladies restroom is, she is met with the answer: “sorry, I have no idea where your bathroom is.” Jackson then sprints across the facility grounds back to the West area, to begin her work, while utilizing what were deemed the appropriate restrooms for use. Jackson is also met with critical glances from her white male counterparts when she gets a cup of coffee from the community coffee pot. When she returns to work the following week, she is met with a separate coffee pot labeled “colored,” as well as a different colored coffee cup. This is one of many examples throughout the film and book, which represent the everyday microaggressions that African Americans faced in everyday life throughout the 1960s.
Mary Jackson is also shown checking the capabilities of a rocket withstanding reentry to the atmosphere, and its continuous breakdown. She immediately demonstrates her proven capability at offering solutions to these issues and is offered by a white male superior the opportunity to join the rising engineer program. When Jackson expresses doubts, the supervisor then asks “if she were a white male, would she not wish to be an engineer?” to which she replies she wouldn’t have to because she would already be one. When she chooses to apply for the open position, she is advised that they do not accept female applicants. When Jackson argues that she is just as qualified, she is then met with a counterargument that she does not meet the educational requirements, and will need to take additional nighttime courses. Jackson then states that “every time we have the chance to advance, they move the finish line.” This crucial moment further outlines the racial and gender tensions of the 1960’s workplace.
Jackson begins her fight to take the necessary courses at a deemed white high school. Jackson is able to get a court case to petition for her right to attend this school. When the judge initially reminds her that Virginia is still a judicially deemed segregated state, she approaches the judge’s bench and presents her argument that she cannot change the color of her skin and that she wants to fight for her right to be an engineer for NASA. In her book, Shutterfly can be quoted as saying “Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth (Shutterfly, Chapter 20).” The judge grants Jackson the right to take the night classes she needs to advance herself, marking a strong racial shift in the judicial system. Jackson later begins to attend school, and upon her initial entry to an all-white male classroom, the teacher states that the “curriculum is not designed to teach a woman,” to which she replies, “ I imagine it’s the same as teaching a man.” With no labeled color section, as she is the first colored student, she is granted the right to claim any available seat. Following her graduation, she goes on to become NASA’s first African-American female engineer. This is a major accomplishment considering in the 1960s, women accounted for around 1% of all engineers in the United States (nspe.org).
Dorothy Vaughan is also shown in her position within the West Area computing room. Serving the position as a defacto supervisor, she questions her white superiors as to whether she is being considered for an official supervisor position. She is met with the answer that they are not looking to fill a supervisor position and is given no real answer to why, and whether she will be given additional compensation for the additional duties she has taken on. This is a strong point for the lack of African American leadership and management in the 1960s. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision, as of 1966, African Americans only represented less than 1% of all officials and managers in the Workplace (ecoc.gov). Returning to work the next week, Dorothy hand delivers her office’s assigned work to the East Area computing room, to which she is met with a response that a runner should be delivering the work for her, as she needs to be working. While there, she is met with a number of nasty looks from her white counterparts.
These first looks at the three women’s work at NASA demonstrate strong initial examples of the racial and gender tensions of the time. Beyond just being doubted for their ability to perform their jobs, these scenes also show the difficulties and inconveniences they face with everyday amenities and rights. In her book, Shutterfly comments that “eighty percent of the world’s population is colored…In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country (Shutterfly, Chapter 16).” This perhaps best represents that the United States was trying to win the space war, but failed to recognize their necessary role as a leader in racial equality.
Following the initial work scenes which are shown in the movie, the three are depicted in a church scene, which outlined the hope that African Americans had at the time. The Reverend preaches of coming changes with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and praising the three women and their work on the space programs. Mary’s husband then goes on to criticize her hope that she may be able to reach status as an engineer, stating that women can’t be engineers. Johnson is also approached by her future husband, who asks Johnson to explain her mathematical work at NASA, and goes on to make additional comments regarding women working in the space program, to which Johnson reviews her credential as a skilled mathematician and the benefits that the West Area “computers” offer to the space programs. This further shows that beyond the racial tensions of the time, there was still gender inequality even within the African American community.
When Dorothy takes her children to the local library, the movie depicts the growing racial tensions by showing African American riots, with the chant “segregation must go.” When Dorothy enters the library, she and her children are removed from the building for their race. Dorothy, in the meantime, steals a book on how to utilize a coming IBM operating system, in protest to the notion that they do not deserve the same educational opportunities as the white community. Throughout these few scenes, segregated water fountains and buses are also seen. This is one of the highlight scenes showing the full scope of the social disparities between races during this time. This also further demonstrates the everyday microaggressions against African American life during these times.
A later scene in the movie shows Katherine being scolded for leaving her desk for 40 minutes each day, to which she replies that there are no colored bathrooms in the entire East Area building. She then goes on to preach about the racially charged mistreatment she has received. She argues that she is underpaid and that no one will even touch the same coffee pot as her. Following her departure from the room, Harrison takes it upon himself to remove the colored sticker from her coffee pot, as well as taking a sledgehammer to the colored ladies restroom sign. He also goes on to announce that everyone is able to use whatever restroom they would like, as well as makes the iconic statement that “here at NASA we all pee the same color.” This marks a major change in the racial structure of NASA and its change towards a less segregated workplace.
Dorothy later further takes on an unspoken leadership role, utilizing the book she stole from the library to teach herself how to run the new IBM data processing system. Beyond entering the IBM system room and correcting errors, when no one else is present, she also takes it upon herself to teach the remaining women in the West Area computing office the basics of the system, helping to promote their usefulness in what was considered the future of NASA mathematical computations. Dorothy quickly proves her self-taught knowledge and usefulness in these systems and is offered a position in the IBM office at the request of the lead IBM engineer. Dorothy refuses unless she is able to bring the other “computers” who work alongside her in the West Area office. The following scene shows these women marching from their previously segregated area to their new place in a previously all-white office. Proving her mechanical capabilities, she is later granted a permanent assignment in the IBM data processing office.
Despite having proven her abilities, and NASA making strides to a more colorblind workplace, Katherine continues to face growing challenges in her place in the East Area. Being granted a place in the initial calculations for the launch of John Glenn’s orbit to space, she is faced with rework over and over as she is not allowed to attend briefings on the updates of latest trajectory changes. Standing up to her boss yet again, Johnson is granted a place in the briefing, and upon entry, she is yet again met with shocked looks and silence. During the meeting, Katherine is offered the opportunity to prove herself yet again, completing calculations for reentry points of the upcoming launch in front of the group that had rejected her up until this point. Yet again, Katherine’s resilience and capability shock everyone, despite her race and gender.
With the growing use of the IBM data processing system, Katherine’s services are no longer needed as a “computer” in her current assignment and she is sent back to work in the West Area computing office. Before her departure, she is approached by her white coworkers who present her a gift to congratulate her on her recent engagement and proclaim to her the good work she had done for them. The following days, they realize that there are discrepancies in the numbers ran by the new automatic IBM data processing system. At the request of John Glenn, the pilot of the Friendship 7, Katherine is asked to return and manually check the system’s coordinates. Having corrected the incorrect coordinate calculations, Katherine rushes to deliver the manual calculation, which proves to be correct and safely launch and return the Friendship 7, despite some almost life-threatening complications upon Glenn’s re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Katherine is also offered a pass to the Langley monitoring room to watch all of her hard works success. Katherine later went on to receive credit for the groundbreaking work she completed and participated in the research for the launch of the Apollo II, the world’s first successful trip to the moon.
When comparing Shutterfly’s book, and Melfi’s cinematic portrayal, it is interesting to see which narratives were chosen to be incorporated. To begin, Shutterfly’s writings include narratives of each woman from 1943-1962, while the movie only portrays the years 1961-1962. This is likely largely based on the fact that the audience is more likely to relate to these years, as that was the time the great space race was taking place between the United States and the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the most notable historical moment in the book. Additionally, Melfi’s strong emphasis on racial and gender tensions are most highlighted in this one year, as this is the time that integration and desegregation began to take place in this geographical area. Beyond just the connection with the audience in this regard, Melfi also chose to incorporate and add more narrative on the woman’s personal lives. Being a white male, incorporating these aspects, rather than further highlighting the discriminatory aspects of their experiences in the workplace, could demonstrate some of Melfi’s own inherent biases.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Shutterfly’s book and Melfi’s interpretation is the minimal description of Dorothy Vaughan’s personal background. Vaughan, when granted the opportunity to work for NACA, left her families long-standing location in Farmville, and relocated to Langley. This required her to uproot her and her children’s lives, as well as leave her husband behind, who stayed and worked out of necessity. This point is crucial to outlining the minimal opportunities African Americans, particularly women, had for career advancement at this time.
Looking beyond Melfi’s decision to take on the readaptation of the film, it appears they extended beyond just illustrating the racial tensions of the time. In an interview with Melif, when asked why he chose to take on the role as the director of the film, he states “First of all I couldn’t believe it was true that there were women at all working at NASA because we were so sexist at the time (Henderson).” Additionally, he goes on to state “I have two daughters and I said to myself there’s nothing more valuable for my life than to do this story justice (Henderson). This only further demonstrates that while the book was originally based primarily on the racial tensions behind these women’s roles at NASA, Melfi was more interested in adapting the gender-based discrimination at this institution.
Reflecting upon the experience portrayed of each of these women, it is hard not to imagine me in their shoes. While I was aware of the racial and gender inequalities of the time, it is enlightening to see the extent to which these inequalities still reached. Perhaps the example that was most eye-opening was Johnson having to run 15 minutes each way to use a restroom that was deemed racially appropriate for her. This only helps me to come to the realization of the extents to which whites sought to keep the races segregated. Additionally, seeing the largely gender-biased view of both the workplace and personal lives of each woman, and the continuous need for them to prove themselves to their coworkers, friends, and family, helps to show that there were not only disparities between races, but that gender biases also stretched beyond racial lines.