What ‘Hidden Figures’ Taught Me

Image: NASA Kennedy via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This past holiday season, Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” made its debut on the big screen, opening its first weekend with $22.8 million— a number that knocked out “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” out of its three-week reign at the box office. Now, over a month after its release, “Hidden Figures” continues to dominate the charts, amassing over four times its budget, but more importantly, inspiring young girls through the previously untold story of three brave women.

Set in the Kennedy Era United States, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three Black women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, and their unsung contributions to NASA’s Project Mercury, the first successful American human space mission. Their talents in mathematics and sciences are highlighted throughout the film, which recognizes each woman’s talents that led to the successful launch of the spacecraft. The famous Space Race chronicled in the film, however, is a backdrop to the main themes of racism and sexism.

“Hidden Figures” does an accurate job of portraying how Black women were mistreated in the workplace, especially in the STEM fields. Memorable moments include Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) clicking away in her heels to the West Area Computing Unit, which she later describes as being half a mile away from the lab where she works. With an arm full of unfinished computations, she runs to the only and closest “Colored Ladies Bathroom” while still getting her calculations done. Though this is later resolved by the director of the mission, Al Harrison, who hacks at the restroom sign with an ax and says “here at NASA we all pee the same color,” it is important to address what is left unsaid: Johnson didn’t receive recognition until she asked for it.

“Hidden Figures” is a film about Black women. Both gender and race play a role in discrimination in STEM workplaces, not only sixty years ago, but also today. In fact, Americans tend to look to international workers rather than domestic for computer science-related jobs and even certain computer algorithms have been proven to perform more favorably towards men than women. In addition, the issue of Black representation— or lack thereof— in STEM remains prevalent today, despite the push Historically Black Colleges and Universities are making to encourage success among Black students in science and math. These statistics, however, undermine the contributions Black women have made to science and math.

Names like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin may ring a bell, but Angella D. Ferguson, who made breakthroughs in sickle cell research, and Norma Sklarek, creator of the first all-women architect firm, are both Black women who are invisible in grade school curricula. Erasure of these prominent figures from history can not only discourage young students who display interest in these fields, but make them feel as if no one who looks like them has amounted to such great things. One of the reasons social media exploded upon the release of “Hidden Figures” is because many people had no idea such influential figures in NASA were Black women.

Few films are as historically important to watch as this one. Actress Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan in the film, even bought out a screening of “Hidden Figures” in a predominantly low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles, so families could watch the film for free on Martin Luther King weekend. Not only is this film breaking barriers through its story, but with its impact. It has three Academy Award nominations, though many argue Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae should have been nominated for their riveting performances, in an Oscar season where for the first time, Black people are nominated for an award in every acting category.

Though this is a step in the right direction for recognition of Black women in STEM, it is long overdue. The success of this film is important, because it reminds us that what we learn in the classroom is limited and skewed. We never truly learn the full story.

As Henson said, tearfully, accepting an award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards: “We are hidden figures no more.

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