Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.
Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.
As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.
African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing. The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.
The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.
Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.
Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.
NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).
Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.
Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future. Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.
Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.