Hidden Messages

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Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.


Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.



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