It takes a lot to get me to the movies these days, because I no longer enjoy watching 150 minutes of mechanical parts, whether they be from robots or spaceships or assault weapons, shatter across the screen in slow-motion. We should be proud of our technology, to be sure, but too often we mistake it as synonymous for a storyline.
That’s why when I finally saw the trailer for Hidden Figures, I did not think “Oh, I’ll catch that on Netflix” or “Too bad I have plans Saturday.” I hit pause on the real-world and play on the movie-world, only to find the movie-world as real as any day of history. The film, for those that have not seen it, centers on three female African-American human computers who work for NASA during the Space Race.
Yet Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan are not caricatures from director Theodore Melfi’s imagination. They are real women, renowned in their fields, but unknown to many of us. The film introduced these women to us in a way few others could have. Though as Mary Jackson’s husband in the film says “Civil rights ain’t always civil,” the film itself is surprisingly uplifting.
The film opens with Dorothy fixing the trio’s broken down car. When a white male police officer pulls over and sees their NASA ids, he offers them an escort, which the film depicts as the women chasing him down the highway in Virginia in 1961. The scene is cheeky, with a devil-may-care freedom, and immediately sets the mood for some of my favorite witticisms: “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA…and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses” and “I have no choice, but to be the first.”
I have no choice but to be the first. That stuck with me. As we all plan our respective futures, racing to what for many of us is a predefined finish line, these women had no one cheering in the stands. Jeering, sure. -Isms, aplenty. NASA’s human computers, however, never let it phase them. Katherine Johnson went on to perform calculations necessary for John Glenn’s run in 1962 and win the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mary Jackson became one of NASA’s first female African American engineers. Dorothy Vaughan became NASA’s first African-American supervisor.
When the Hidden Figures cast brought a 97-year-old Katherine Johnson out on to the Oscars’ stage, it only strengthened my awe at Johnson’s accomplishments. I was not only thankful for her work but regretful it had taken us so long to recognize it. She made me wonder who else remained a hidden figure in any field across our nation, whether today or in the past.
To them I felt we owed what we had always denied – acknowledgement, respect, and above all, a “thank you.”