by Amelia Walker
In the new film “Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfi, three female African-American NASA employees go against segregation standards and gender stereotypes to assist in completing one of America’s greatest engineering feats: sending an astronaut to space.
The story follows the career and life of computing genius Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), alongside her two coworkers: aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). The trio, along with many other black women, work in the West Area Computers division, a sector made up of skillful mathematicians that tend to be unappreciated by their white counterparts.
After finally being recognized for her talent, Johnson is assigned to do analytic geometry and computing for the aerospace division but is met with some adversity. Standing out as not just the only African-American but also the only woman in the department, Johnson is faced with disrespect from her colleagues and the numerous segregation standards at the time, such as having to drink from a separate coffee canister and use a different bathroom.
Likewise, Vaughn and Jackson are faced with equally unhappy circumstances. Jackson, though possessing an engineering mind and motivation, cannot work for NASA without education, and education is only provided to white males. Vaughn has a more internal struggle, that being a female overseer who is unwilling to give her the manager title, though her present work and abilities merit the promotion. All the women are inspirationally driven to achieve their goals and are unswayed by their circumstances.
The main storyline follows Johnson’s fight to prove she has the training and skills to be a valuable asset to the department and is worthy of doing the calculations for the illustrious Space Race.
The obvious topics throughout the film are racism and sexism, but the idea of sacrifice of the women and their families is also well presented. Other issues, such as single parenting, vying for promotion and ignorant prejudice are eloquently woven in between discussions of flight calculations. The film does well to show the women’s struggles as minorities without demonizing their male coworkers and allows both their strong and their vulnerable qualities to shine through.
“Hidden Figures” is saturated with serious discussions of race as well as sweet moments of reconciliation within the workplace as well as the home. This is perhaps best demonstrated in Johnson’s relationship with her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), whose gruff authority manifests itself in countercultural ways. Such as when he accepts Johnson’s more creative methods and removes the segregated bathrooms.
The film leads you to laugh at Jackson’s sassy one-liners, cry with Vaughan’s rejections, and increase your hope with every step toward acceptance Johnson takes. The film is empowering to watch and gives a fresh look behind the scenes of the John Glenn flight we all learned about in history class. Backed with a soundtrack by the renowned composer Hans Zimmer and “The Voice’s” Pharrell Williams, the film gives a vibrant representation of the 1960s while also maintaining a modern feel and sound.
As a female engineering student, I found “Hidden Figures” to be especially meaningful. When Johnson walked into an office full of men, I was instantly taken back to the many labs I’ve entered as the only female student, realizing every man in the room was aware of my presence in a most unflattering way.
As Vaughn fought for position, I was reminded of lab partners who disregarded my knowledge for their own agenda. As Jackson took the open seat in the front of the room, I recalled boldly doing the same in my Advanced Digital Logic Design class. True enough, I face nothing like the racial contempt these women endured, but I do know a thing or two about being the odd one out and getting labeled with an inaccurate stereotype.
This film was a breath of fresh air to this young collegiate just to know that I am following a legacy set by women who fought and succeeded in their careers while balancing other friendships and responsibilities.
The movie, however, did fail to represent what happens when male coworkers stop seeing women as a spectacle and start seeing them as equals. Engineering is so heavily focused on teamwork, and I would have liked to see the women’s relationships with their male co-workers more developed.
All in all, “Hidden Figures” was an excellent movie that gives accurate insight into the lives of women in engineering and computer science. It will leave you laughing, sighing and wanting to fight all within the span of a few scenes. “Hidden Figures” came to theaters on Christmas Day and the DVD release date is estimated for April.
Amelia Walker is a senior electrical engineer and an arts and entertainment writer for Cedars. When not writing, she enjoys solving Rubik’s cubes and pretending she’s