Black, female and hidden from history

Review of Hidden Figures (2017) Directed by Theodore Melfi, starring Taraji P. HensonOctavia SpencerJanelle Monáe by Dave Kellaway

We go from being our father’s daughters, to our husband’s wives to our babies’ mothers. Mary Jackson

It starts with her foot moving in agitated way. She needs the loo. We see her start to rush from her desk in high heels. She runs half a mile between one building to another. The camera follows her every step of the way.

She is carrying documents so she can work while on the toilet. She drops them and has to stop to pick them up. You hear her breathing, feel her perspiration and desperation. She finally gets there. Then she has to dash back to her desk in the other building. We see this scene where the camera deliberately keeps pace with her at least three times.

Watching it you ask yourself why does the director take up so much time repeating the scene, not editing it down. Then you understand in the final climatic running of the scene how important it is to visually communicate the message of the film.

Wondering why this team member took so much time for breaks, Al Harrison, the NASA director, asks Katherine Johnson what she is doing. Katherine replies:

There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrissn. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.

It is one of those great screen moments that will stick in your mind and become an internet movie clip. The director has turned an ordinary daily necessity into a narrative device that brilliantly tells the story he wants to tell.

It is a story that even people on the left who should know about these things probably had no idea of  –  it was certainly news to me. The film tells how three black women, Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, played important roles in NASA. The first was what they called then a computer – a maths specialist who was able to calculate the correct re-entry points for John Glenn’s first US orbital space flight. The second was a manager and an early computer specialist and the third was the first black woman engineer working in NASA.

The NASA Langley base was in West Virginia where segregation laws still existed. Racism was particularly strong in this ‘southern’ state and the military nature of the NASA base exacerbated this as well as encouraging sexism against women.  Segregated education meant Mary Jackson had to go to court to gain the right to study at night school to get her engineer’s qualifications.

We see the separate water fountains, whites-only toilets and black people sitting at the back of the bus. Even inside the NASA complex, the workforce was totally segregated – work areas, toilets and canteens. However the huge pressure on the space programme to beat the Soviets meant that this segregation had to be modified. These three very gifted black women were individually promoted into a white environment.

Histories of the space race can often romanticise it as a noble adventure, a search for knowledge. The film shows the cold war context. It was all about being number one in space to have a military advantage. The Soviet Sputnik, and then Yuri Gargarin being the first man in space, triggered shock and a deep political reaction in the US. I remember that in Britain people were rather less concerned about this and Gargarin was welcomed here as a popular hero.

Civil rights ain’t always civil. (Mary’s husband)

Another strength of the film is that it does not just show discrimination inside NASA but also the violence against the Civil Rights movement. We see the bombings of freedom buses and the brutal police reaction to protests. At the same time, and this is not always the case in Hollywood movies, the black family and community is shown as strong, loving and proud. Indeed it shares the shock at the Soviet advances and is cheered by the triumph of John Glenn.

Everyday discrimination is shown when Dorothy Vaughn is ejected from a public library because she was looking for a book on the new computer language in the whites-only section. Luckily for the space programme she has the initiative to have put the book about Fortran in her handbag. As she explains to the children in the back of the bus afterwards her taxes paid for the library just like the white folks

This is also a great movie to encourage women and people of colour to get excited about mathematics and engineering. Despite girls now doing better in most exams than boys at school today they are still a minority in subjects like maths, physics and engineering. The film manages to make some of the technical problems intelligible and even exciting. You even get a hint of how computers would eventually allow the US to catch up and overhaul the soviet space effort.

In the closing credits we find out about what happened to all three women who went on to continue working on the Moon and space shuttle programmes. Obama gave a special honour to Katherine Johnson just a few years ago.

Following last year’s outcry over the whiteness of the Oscars there are a clutch of decent films this year featuring mostly black actors and actresses – the excellent Moonlight, this film and Fences. Whether they will win anything against the La La Land juggernaut – a tweak on the classic Hollywood musical and pleasant enough but not a great movie – is another matter. In any case this one uses the classic Hollywood formula of striving against odds for success to good purpose, telling a story that really has been hidden from history.

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