In 1961, America was all about the mission. A directive that sounds simple was but was anything but. The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was on. Both sides were engaged in a game of technological Can You Top This? and the Russians were winning. Cold War America was held in the grip of a simple fear. The Russians had already proved five years earlier that they could built a rocket capable of pushing an artificial satellite into orbit. The logic from there told us a simple story: If a satellite could be pushed that far that fast, then what was to prevent them from putting a nuclear bomb on the top of that rocket and flying it over to the US? World War II was only a decade and a half into history and the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fresh in American minds.
Into this setting we meet Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae respectively), three black women who work as “computers” at NASA, calculating the trajectories for Project Mercury. They are part of the West Area Computers Group at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Despite their clear experience, talent, and proficiency with the work–and the ambition to improve their skills and experience–1961 Virginia is not an encouraging place. Despite making use of her skills, Johnson’s supervisor won’t allow her to put her name on the report she writes or attend briefings on mission updates. The local librarian would rather throw Vaughan out of the building than allow her to borrow a book on FORTRAN so she can learn about the newly installed IBM mainframe. And while she contributes to figuring out how to improve the quality of the Mercury capsule’s heat shield, Jackson can’t be trained or hired as an engineer without taking the advanced classes that are only available at a whites-only institution.
Hidden Figures is a movie about achievement and racism. History, until relatively recently, has tended to forget or ignore the stories of individuals who contributed significantly to our national success if they didn’t fit the narrative. It makes its point without being high-handed or manufacturing drama for the sake of a conflict. The setting provides conflict enough. 1961 Virginia was was a time and place where segregation was considered utterly normal, even banal. We’re shown this in a series of small but essential scenes on the NASA campus: Johnson’s most annoying problem isn’t her work load or her co-workers, it’s the fact to just going to the toilet entails a 40 minute trip from her office to the colored-only rest room on the other end of the compound. It’s not until her boss is made aware of this that he realizes just how insane the law is. His solution is to tear down the white-only signs from the building. Segregation doesn’t fit the Mission, so out it goes. Time is precious. Get back to work.
That’s really the point of the film: segregation doesn’t fit the national mission. It’s an archaic, emotional reaction to a shallow need to feel superior to those around us based on superficial differences. The decision to do away with it is one we never really made.
On that note, we could do worse than to encourage women and girls to get involved in determining our national mission.
So, be the smartest one in the room.
Be essential to the mission.
Demonstrate your ability, skill, and competence to the world.
And if the existing mission is detrimental to the country, then let’s create a new mission that isn’t.
In the meantime, make noise. Make them notice you. Make it clear to those who don’t value you that you must be valued. More importantly, show them why. Show them what you have done. Demonstrate your vision to anyone who will listen. Do it now.
Happy MLK Day. Go see this movie. Now.