Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were hardly household names in 1961 as the U.S. space program under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) attempted to keep pace with its global competitors. However, with the release of the film “Hidden Figures” on Dec. 6, the trio of Black women, whose computations and intellectual zeal solidified America’s nonpareil position in the space race, they will soon become household names.
Janelle Monet portrays Mary Jackson, one of three African-American women engineers to break NASA’s glass ceiling in the film ‘Hidden Figures.’ (Courtesy photo)
Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a mathematical prodigy, assigned by NASA to join an all-White, male team of engineers charged with calculating the launch coordinates and trajectory for an Atlas rocket. Her reception is cold, aggressive, and undermining, which force audiences to cheer all the more, when Goble’s tenacity pays off. The deliberate pace of the film offers a slow build that effectively documents the trials of women fighting pressure to abandon their efforts from their colleagues, and at times, their relatives.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, the film, and directed by Theodore Melfi (who wrote the script with Allison Schroeder), “Hidden Figures” recounts the critical roles Goble, Jackson (Janelle Monet) and Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) performed in not only creating complex math equations to solve the problems hindering the successful space launch, but also doing so in the face of both overt racism and sexism.
“We don’t have parades for mathematicians; we have parades for astronauts — but tonight is a parade for mathematicians,” director Theodore Melfi told the SVA Theatre audience at a premiere of Hidden Figures. “I hope this film shows kids of all races and sexes that there’s more opportunity and success to be had than in a Kardashian kind of world. To see a different dream about their mind is so desperately needed.”
For Shetterly, who grew up around scientists, near NASA’s Hampton Virginia headquarters, the manuscript allowed her to more fully examine a host of Black women mathematicians – literally hidden in plain view – throughout the organization’s heyday.
“When I started digging into records, I realized that Mary Jackson was a manager as the head of a group of Black female mathematicians in the 1950s. She was the very first African-American manager in all of the organization that would become NASA,” Shetterly told the AFRO. “Learning how these women were able to achieve this measure of success back then, was a revelation and it demonstrates how these women are a part of the American mosaic, too.”
Henson, Spencer, and Monet give Academy Award-winning performances, and are anchored brilliantly by Kevin Costner (Al Harrison) and Glen Powell (astronaut John Glenn).
But far from being just a tale of resilience in the face of overt bias – which included having to walk nearly a mile across the campus of NASA to use the segregated bathroom, and having co-workers suddenly add a “Colored” coffeepot to the kitchen – “Hidden Figures” helps recast the historical gaze, according to film historian David Shackleford.
“Our culture is so used to seeing White men in authority that mentioning the NASA, one automatically envisions White men in starched shirts and ties chain-smoking through math equations. If there is a woman in the room she is White and a secretary; if she is Black, then she is the cleaner,” Shackleford told the AFRO. “This film is brilliant in forcing audiences to move away from stereotypes.”