My thoughts on seeing Hidden Figures
A few days ago, I finally got to see Hidden Figures at the theater, and I loved it. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:
Before you read further, I encourage you to first read what this film meant to Refranz Daviz, an amazing educator, teacher of color, and leader of the EduColor Movement: Why Seeing Hidden Figures is Important.
Now that you’ve read Rafranz’s take as a teacher of color, I’ll share my perspective as a white, male science teacher, whose experience in science and life, in general, has been a very privileged one. In this post, I’d like to think about the lessons I learned from this film and think about how I can share those lessons with my students.
Warning: there are a few spoilers ahead.
- The enormity of obstacles, even when they are just bathrooms: separate but equal never is. As a child, I remember learning about “separate but equal” and seeing signs for a “colored” water fountain next to one for “whites only.” I knew this was wrong, but many of the images I remember seeing showed facilities that did look nearly “equal”
Back then, I had a hard time understanding how this seemingly small difference could be a major spark of the Civil Rights Movement. But separate is never equal, and this film teaches that lesson in powerful ways. When Dorthy Vaughn goes to the public library to find a book on FORTRAN, she has to steal it from the Whites-only section of the Library. When Katherine Goble asks about the location of the bathroom after she has been reassigned to the all-white Space Task Force and figures out she has to walk half a mile to the colored restroom back in her old workplace. Watching her have to run this distance, in heels, in the rain, carrying stacks of calculations to check over, only to rush back to her desk to keep working, only to get yelled at by her boss. These examples make it clear that something as simple as the placement of a library book or bathroom can be a tremendous obstacle for advancement—when you have to spend half an hour trudging to the bathroom multiple times a day, you are going to have less time to work than the white male engineer across from you who just has to walk outside the office to find a bathroom.
- The pervasive subtlety of systematic racism and sexism: What was most interesting to me was that despite all the moments of visible and invisible racism that the heroines faced in this movie, and deep impacts these events had on them, most of the white characters were completely unaware of the unequal society around them. The bathrooms for the white scientists were right around the corner. I learned from reading the book that NASA even provided on-campus dormitory housing for female employees—whites only, of course. When you get on the bus, there’s a seat waiting for you in the front, and your section of the library is stocked with every book you could want, including those that would allow you to advance your career. All of this creates an atmosphere that allows the white scientists (and the entire white community of Hampden) to live a life blithely unaware of all the intricate and mostly hidden ways society is structured to maintain their status and deprive blacks of the opportunity to gain equal status.
- The incredible amounts of grace and restraint that Black Americans must display at every moment in order to simply exist in a white world: The movie is filled with moments where one of the protagonists endure a veiled insult or indignity from a white colleague, and must simply brush it off, to not cause a scene which would only draw a negative reprisal. The most powerful of these moments comes in the opening scene of the movie, which is in the trailer, and features the three lead characters trying to fix a broken-down car on the side of the road when a Virginia State trooper approaches. In this movie, there’s a great moment of comic tension where the officer says something like “NASA, I didn’t know they hired …” and Dorthy Vaughan quickly interjects “Women,” and manages to cajole the officer into providing the women a police escort to work. But throughout this scene, all I could think of was Sandra Bland, and how simply asking why she was pulled over set off a confrontation with the officer that resulted in her arrest and death in a Texas jail cell.
- The many ways to be part of a movement: The movie also does a good job of depicting the many different ways in which blacks participated in the civil rights movements. Not everyone marched in protests; some, like Mary Jackson, petitioned the county to allow her to take advanced science courses at the all-white high school in town and went on to be the first black female engineer at NASA. The movie does a great job showing that it takes a spectrum of efforts to bring about change in society.
- The power of privilege: There were many moments in the film where the privilege of the white characters in the film was overwhelming. Some, like the supervisor of the white computers, played by Kristin Dunst, go nearly the entire film unaware of their privilege and even overt acts of racism. The movie also sets some characters up with the opportunity to use their privilege for change; the director of the Space Task Force, played by Kevin Costner. After he yells at Kathrine Golble Johnson for her long bathroom breaks and then discovers her reasons, he rages as the “Colored Restroom” sign with a crowbar, desegregating bathrooms on the campus with the line, “We all pee the same color here.” The film makes it clear that it often takes someone with privilege to tear down the system of privilege.Often that person doesn’t even have virtuous motives like equality and justice. Sometimes, like this case, the boss just wants his employee to be able to spend more time behind her desk. For more on this, I found this article illuminating:
When the women of ‘Hidden Figures’ needed The Man. Update: I also read another interesting pieve in Vice, Space So White, that raises some good questions about why the screenwriters felt the need to add some scenes where the white boss character “saves” the black heroine from segregated bathrooms, and lets her into the control room during the launch. Neither of these incidents actually took place.
- A great picture of the early days of electro-mechanical computing, with some guidance for today: One of my favorite story lines is the work to install an “IBM” to take over many of the calculating duties from the human “computers”. The early history of computing seems to be on full display complete with punch-cards, oscilloscopes, racks of machines, green and white line paper for printers, and jokes about not being able to fit the equipment through the door. Here’s a machine that does 24,000 calculations per second and will likely make all human computers obsolete. But Dorothy Vaughn sees opportunity here; she realizes that we will always need people to program the computers, and so she grabs a copy of a book on FORTRAN (cleverly subtitled as the “language of the future”) and proceeds to teach her entire department the fundamentals of programming so that they are ready to jump right in and help when the opportunity presents itself. It seems to me that this is exactly the lesson we need in today’s world where robots and machines capable of performing legal discovery or reading x-rays makes us fear for the future of even highly skilled jobs like lawyers and radiologists.
- Math in the movie: I mostly loved how math was portrayed in the movie, starting in the very first scenes where the young Katherine was sitting in the hallway and naming and mentally manipulating all the shapes she saw in a stained glass window, followed by a scene where she was asked to solve an algebra problem involving the product of two quadratics. Her explanation of her solution was thoughtful, clear and sounded just like a promising young mathematician should.Later in the film, there were a number of great discussions centered around mathematical problems. Katherine Johnson also talked about needing to “invent new mathematics”, which was a wonderful thing to hear in the middle of a scene. They talked about the “ancient” Euler’s method as a possible solution, and Katherine went back to her office and grabbed an old textbook to study it further, just as I would expect any good mathematician to do. The movie also made it clear that mathematics was about hard work and collaboration, not insights of genius.One of thing I really appreciated is how accepting friends and family seemed to be of the main characters’ love of mathematics, and didn’t paint them as freakishly abnormal because they understood mathematics and found enjoyment in it. The movie didn’t try to overplay up any sort of “nerd” angle for any of the characters, nor did it go all “A Beautiful Mind” with the math sequences where animated equations and mathematics were flying through the sky.
This was a great film. I think it’s a must see for every science teacher, and then I think our challenge is to figure out why these incredible women and their contributions to science were left out of our educations. We can also bring their stories back for our students. I think this is a film that can inspire children of any age, and I plan to show it to my 6-year-old daughter. This film also invites its audience to dig deeper and learn more about this history, and I think this provides a unique opportunity for science teachers. What if we were the ones who created a teaching guide and lesson plans that helped students to understand the history of human computers, how one goes about calculating the trajectory of a rocket launch, the changing demographics of NASA, and the challenges underrepresented minorities still face in the sciences today?
Lastly, and most importantly, I personally want to approach this work with a great deal of humility and a strong desire to help, not lead. This is not my story to tell, and I know there are many other women of color out there who are more than capable of leading the way on this. Here are a few I’ve found who are worth following:
Jedidah Isler is an astrophysicist, and she’s been tweeting about the film:
Jeanette Epps is a current NASA Astronaut:
Here’s a great discussion on periscope from Film Critic Rebecca Theodore about black women geniuses: