The Power of Hidden Figures
In Sept. of 2016, the historically sensational book, “Hidden Figures”, was published. Not long after, a movie of the same title was released at the beginning of 2017. The plot revolves around three black women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who work for NASA. The movie is set in the early 1960s when America was desperately trying to beat the USSR in the “Space Race.” These women were considered “hidden figures” for a reason; so, although we can watch this movie and feel good about how far we’ve progressed socially, it’s important to stop and think about the movie’s serious themes and powerful details.
Although the author, Margot Lee Shetterly, assisted with the film, the movie’s script and the book have reportedly exhibited some inconsistencies. This is understandable considering the movie wrapped up production before the book was even published. How historically accurate is this movie, you ask? Well, director Ted Melfi explicitly stated,
The movie is not a documentary.”
Some of the scenes were dramatized to make it more appealing to an audience. For example, Katherine was not mistaken for a janitor as the movie indicated, nor did she have to run across campus to use the colored restroom. It is true, however, that women were not normally allowed in briefings.
One of the imagined scenes created some controversy. In the movie, Katherine (Taraji Henson), ran half a mile to another building to use the colored restroom. After many daily trips, Katherine’s supervisor, who Kevin Costner played, realized she went missing. When her supervisor found out why she was gone, he went to the restroom and destroyed the “Whites Only” sign. He, then, declared,
So, what’s the problem?
Admittedly, this was an inspiring scene. It was nice to see a white person treat the leading ladies with some respect. In an interview, the director even commented on the supervisor’s actions:
There needs to be white people who do the right thing and black people who do the right thing. Who cares who does the right thing as long as the right thing is achieved?”
This kind of thinking is what made the bathroom scene an issue for some people. In a movie about three black women, the focus should be on the three black women. They didn’t need a “white hero” in real life, so why would they need one in the movie? In reality, Katherine didn’t realize there were colored bathrooms on campus for the first few years. The white bathrooms weren’t marked by “Whites Only” signs and there were very few colored bathrooms. Eventually, Katherine was called out on her mistake but she refused to use the colored bathrooms. Clearly, she could take care of herself.
The other two women, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae), had their fair share of struggles as well. Dorothy wanted to learn how to run NASA’s new equipment but was denied access to books at the segregated library because they weren’t in the colored section. So, she took them anyway. Mary was recruited by an engineering team to work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel and had to petition the court to take engineering classes with white students, which is historically accurate. This obstacle was a difficult one to surpass. When Mary’s supervisor asked if she would be an engineer if she was a white man, her response was,
As we celebrate many accomplished “hidden figures” this Black History Month, remember the challenges and inequalities our brothers and sisters faced in the past and still face today. Stand with one another in love and learn more about the women who put America into space.