No Award goes to the movies: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures tells the story of how African-American women helped put the United States in space. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book was optioned for film before it had even been published, so clearly I’m not the only person who was very excited by this concept. (Things I’m into: the space program; feminist history; the corners of history which are overlooked or obscured.)


I loved the book a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie when I saw it on Friday. It was a lovely portrayal of excellence in the face of oppression, of female friendship, and of some of the nuances of racism as expressed by middle class white women. And, of course, SPACE.

But the second I saw a Tumblr review promising it had no white saviours, I knew it would have a white saviour. And I was right.

hiddenfigures_filmSummary: back in the day, before we had computers, we had computers — people, mostly women, who spent their days doing complex mathematics for the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA.

Many of these computers were African-American women — they were hired during World War II, and stayed on afterwards, whereas a considerable proportion of the white computers quit. (One of the things the book deals with is the African-American middle class experience of the 1950s, in which it was the norm for wives and mothers to work at least part time, because only white men could earn enough to be a sole breadwinner.) Through the jet age and into the space age and the Civil Rights era and beyond, these women were indispensable at NASA, only to be forgotten as they retired.

Our white saviour is Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, head of the space program. He’s that guy who’s in every movie ever made about NASA — crew cut, thick-framed glasses, more concerned with the work than politics. On his team is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius.

Harrison is initially indifferent to Johnson — she is only assigned to his department because he has fired every white computer he’s worked with — but once he sees her intelligence, he advocates for her, going so far as to singlehandedly desegregate NASA when he realises her nearest bathroom (the “coloured bathroom”) is half a mile away.

This is a mixture of truth and fiction. Harrison is a composite of several real people, but at least one of Johnson’s supervisors did enable her to attend classified briefings. To quote:

“I asked permission to go,” says Katherine, “and they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go,’ and I said, ‘Well, is there a law?’ They said, ‘No.’ Then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’ And I began attending the briefings.”

(All quotes are from History v Hollywood.)

But Johnson was only distantly conscious of segregation when she worked on the space program — for several years, she used the white bathrooms, because there was no signage to say otherwise, and when she was eventually told off for it, she simply … ignored it. Her colleagues, she recalled, were more concerned with the maths than race.

In fact, a lot of the things Johnson experiences in the film are based on issues faced by Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) in real life. It was Jackson who had to run between buildings to find a bathroom. And it was Jackson whose boss became her mentor and advocate.

hiddenfigures_bookThat was Kazimierz Czarnecki, renamed Karl Zielinski in the film, a Polish-American of Jewish descent who lost family in the Holocaust. He encouraged Jackson to become an engineer, and assisted with the bureaucracy. (Spoilers, Jackson didn’t gain access to an all-white high school by giving an emotional speech.)

I shouldn’t have to point out that sidelining a Polish-Jewish man (while giving him an accent he didn’t have, and a less “foreign” name) in favour of a fictional WASP is not a good look.

And, of course, NASA wasn’t desegregated by one individual white man. In fact, by the time the USA put a man in space, it had already been desegregated for a few years, by virtue of the fact that it was a federal facility. No one took down a “coloured” bathroom sign with a hammer — but there was a “coloured” sign on the lunch table reserved for the African-American women during World War II. What happened to it?

It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

To state the obvious: this wasn’t a white man with a hammer making a grand gesture, it was a Woman of Colour making small gestures over and over again.

These are the extent of my main reservations about Hidden Figures, although I definitely agree with Abigail Nussbaum’s tweets about the way it privileges individuals over the abstract social programs that ultimately effected change. I’m still glad that I saw it, and I’ll buy the DVD when it comes out, but I strongly urge people to read the book.

And here are some small things I loved:

  • Ruth, Harrison’s secretary, is a really great portrayal of a white ally to African American women, in that she is well-intentioned and polite and largely ineffectual.
  • Vivian Mitchell, the supervisor of the white computers (played by a Kirstin Dunst who looks her age, it’s really strange), is an equally skilful portrayal of a Nice White Racist Lady, whose slights are in small things like addressing Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) by her first name instead of “Mrs Vaughan”.
  • The whole subplot about Vaughan recognising that electronic computers, and their programmers, would be the future, teaching herself FORTRAN and then training the other computers as programmers, is mostly true, and it’s AMAZING.
  • All of the African American women are beautifully and stylishly dressed, but whenever they’re in the presence of a white woman, it’s clear that the fabric is a bit cheaper and the cut of their clothing isn’t as good. It’s a small, telling detail, and well done that costuming department.
  • The movie alludes to a curious fact about Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson: all three went on to become mentors and advocates for all women at NASA, not just the African-American women, and that’s barely even a metaphor for modern feminism and the under-appreciated work of Women of Colour.

5 thoughts on “No Award goes to the movies: Hidden Figures

  1. LondonKdS

    Turning a Jewish character Christian or non-religious is a bad thing, but a Polish-American man in the 1950s would certainly not have been a privileged “WASP” at the time. He certainly wasn’t Anglo-Saxon, and probably would have been Catholic rather than Protestant. In an era where anti-Catholic prejudice was still a major force in US culture, and when within living memory Polish immigration to the US had been restricted by laws that openly declared them ethnically inferior and not proper white people

      1. fictionmachine

        Having now seen and generally adored the film, I think that the sidelining of Czarnecki was the result of putting the focus on Katherine Johnson, because of the three protagonists she was the one closest to the ‘sexy’ parts of the NASA space program. As for changing his name, etc, I read that a few of the real life people (including one of the men Costner’s character was based upon) did not give permission for their names and appearances to be used in the film. Not sure if that might be true of Czarnecki, hence the change in name and accent.

        It all strikes me as one of those cases of Hollywood fixing structural screenplay problems without considering any other problems that might arise as a result.

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