Hidden Figures, or: February is Black History Month!
I’m a bit out of my depth on this topic, but since the U.S. President spoke in a way today that suggested he has no idea that Frederick Douglass died in 1895, maybe not much as I sometimes think.
Hidden Figures is one of only two films I’ve wanted to see so far this year. (The other is Silence, which I saw two weeks ago.) I ran across it because the book on which the film was based was one of the “suggested reads” at the public library late last year. It was billed as an “Americans in the space race” story, and I loved Lost Moon (the book) / Apollo 13 (the film). So I’d read the book before seeing the film (and long-time readers will be unsurprised that I think the book is better). As I was leaving the theater, in fact, I found myself answering some questions that my fellow theatergoers had and recommending the book.
The film has been a bit of a surprise success. It was marketed as a feel-good story for adult holiday moviegoers, but it’s already exceeded expectations and grossed four times what it cost to make. Hollywood: take note — we are hungry for stories with female leads and black women succeeding. Let’s make some more of them, because when I look at most of what’s on offer in my local theaters, my response is a big yawn. Not to this film, which made me cry at the end. But also not without reservations.
The book recounts the story of the African-American women who worked at NACA (the WWI-era aeronautics agency later reconstituted as NASA) after 1935, when mathematicians were recruited as “computers.” Back then, a computer meant a person who wrote and solved calculations for aeronautical engineers. The book focuses on four women who started to work there during WWII: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble (Johnson), Mary Jackson and Christine Denton. Its author, Margot Lee Shetterly, grew up in the milieu around NASA-Langley, as her father did research there and her family went to church with many of the ladies profiled.
The influence of WWII on U.S. race relations was mixed (don’t forget: internment of Japanese Americans), but on balance positive for African Americans. The necessity of their contribution to the war effort and their devoted service led to the desegregation of the armed forces after 1945, and the Army is still considered the most successfully integrated institution in the U.S. It was also generally positive for women, who were recruited into various industries as men left the U.S. to fight overseas. The relative liberation of the war experience for many women is often cited as a precondition for the achievements of second wave feminism. But if the women described in this book benefited doubly from those developments, at the same time, they faced double hurdles as both blacks and women. They were trained mathematicians with bachelor’s degrees and in some cases M.S.s in mathematics and the sciences, but given the obstacles, had been employed in jobs for which they were highly overqualified before the war, often as high school teachers in segregated schools or bookkeepers. Beginning in 1942, women, including African Americans, were recruited to join the war effort, a process that catapulted these women and several dozen more out of their previous occupations and led to their employment doing calculations. You can do the math and pass the security check? the government asked. We’ll take you.
As the book makes clear, “computing” paid a great deal better than teaching, although job security was tied directly to the war. Many of the women were not originally from Hampton, Virginia, and had to figure out how to (convince their husbands to) move there with their families during the period of pronounced, active Jim Crow in which African Americans could not simply travel, move across the country, or enroll in new schools without significant planning and strategizing. As the book makes clear, Jackson and Goble and to some extent Vaughan were all involved in integration efforts before the war, as the first students to attend white institutions; in Goble’s case, she was a pioneer integrator twice, more than a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.
Although it needed the mad math skillz of African American women, like most of the U.S. federal government at the time, NACA was not integrated. A quota system determined whether a black woman to even be employed in any particular project area. White female computers worked in the “East Computer Group” and black female computers in the “West Computer Group,” separated by a half mile on the Langley campus. Black women at NACA were subject to all the indignities of racial segregation both in town (it determined where they could live, shop, eat, which public facilities they could use, and where their children went to school) and at work. They ate and — let’s be frank — shat in separate facilities at work, per the Jim Crow laws. But, the book suggests, the highly qualified and interesting nature of the work, the higher pay, and their sense of purpose and community kept them at it, and bit by bit, their efforts and the loosening racial politics of the period — along with automation of their tasks — led to their advancement. Vaughan became the first black female NACA supervisor in 1949; Goble was assigned to the flight research division in 1958, where her conceptual and mathematical skills made her indispensable; Jackson, who did support work in wind tunnel research, was encouraged by her supervisor to study further and (after petitioning the city to be allowed to attend university extension classes at the city’s still all-white high school and obtaining her M.S.) was promoted in 1958 to become NASA’s first black female engineer. When NACA reorganized as NASA in 1958, it was desegregated. NASA introduced mainframe computing in 1961, when it became clear that humans could not calculate quickly enough to deal with all the variables involved in journeys that weren’t just up and down. Vaughan became a premiering FORTRAN programmer at NASA and taught it to her subordinates to assure their continued employability.
I really enjoyed reading the book (in fact, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why historians don’t write books like this anymore, even though I know the answer very well) and it made very clear not just the personal triumphs of the computers, but also detailed the many challenges they faced and the sacrifices made for them by their families so that they could arrive at the goal. The narrative focuses heavily on the women and their lives and their search for equality, and the contributions they made, and only secondarily on the progress of the programs that they supported. Casting no aspersions, I don’t think Shetterly really understood enough science to write that kind of book and she was more interested in the family and black history aspect.
The film [spoilers]
The film tells the same story, and I enjoyed it also (see below), but it enhances and compresses details to create a more exciting (as opposed to simply inspiring) story, one that appeals strongly to the American emotional need for heroes. It plays fast and loose with the timeline of a number of events and completely events others, and in doing so, changes their meaning.
The film opens in 1961 with Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Goble (Taraji P. Henson) on their way to work with their car broken down. The mechanically inclined Vaughan is under the car, adjusting the engine, when a white state policeman approaches them. He appears threatening until he learns that they work for the space program (they hint they’re friends with the Mercury 7) and Vaughan shorts out the starter to get it going again; after that he escorts them to work.
At Langley, Vaughan is doing the work of a supervisor but without the rank and the pay; she also has to kowtow to the white supervisor of the “East Computer Group,” Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) — not a historical person–, who’s more than a little openly racist and, as was customary at the time, calls Vaughan by her first name, “Dorothy.” The U.S. space program under the supervision of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) — not a historical person — is lagging behind the Russians (we get to see a particularly threatening looking mockup of Sputnik) and it needs help. We see Jackson working on heat shields for the Mercury capsule in a wind tunnel, and Goble is assigned to Harrison’s group because “they need someone who can handle analytic geometry.” Math people will cringe — the film simplifies the math aspect of what’s going on even more than the book, which is saying a lot. The applied math Goble is doing involves analytic geometry but it also ranges through integral calculus and differential equations. Sadly, my A in high school analytical geometry in 1986 would not have gotten me a job at NASA in 1961. Jackson’s superior (Kazimierz Czarnecki, a real historical figure, the child of Jewish refugees from Europe, who’s inexplicably given the name Karl Zielenski) encourages her to apply for promotion and gives her a white guy speech about America, the land of opportunity.
The plot of the film is interspersed with scenes from the women’s daily lives — in church, where Goble meets her later husband — and at home, where the three women drink moonshine together — AME church ladies! — and plot their advancement, or watch historic moments on TV with their families. However, as Mrs. Mitchell informs her in the segregated cafeteria, Jackson is denied promotion because the requirements have risen, and she would have to attend a class to which she does not have access because they are held only at the (still segregated) University of Virginia or the (still segregated) local city high school evening extension. John Glenn and the Mercury 7 astronauts visit Langley, and Glenn makes a special point of shaking hands with the African American computers.
The main narrative of the film focuses on Goble, who is assigned to Harrison’s group primarily to check other people’s math. (The problems she solves on the chalkboard in the film are drawn from the real Goble’s own research and landmark publication of 1960.) She is the only woman. This is a hard job because (a) the numbers are constantly changing and (b) they won’t let her see half of them anyway. Also, she has to walk half a mile to use the bathroom (the focus of several mildly comic scenes where she races across the campus tottering in her heels) and use a “colored” coffee pot. Her closest supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory) — also not a historical figure–, is dismissive, nobody will talk to her, and she gets in trouble for being away to use the bathroom. She keeps on mathing, and at one point, checking the figures, she draws a graph on the board that explains why their current rocket model (“Redstone“) is failing — which she shouldn’t be able to figure out because the information is classified. It turns out that she’s held up the redacted parts of the report to the light to get the information she needs to finish her work. More checking figures for Goble, who now gets all the numbers she needs, at least. Pressure increases as the Russians put Yuri Gagarin into space, and everyone has to work overtime. Lots of rockets explode in mid-air. Tensions are high. In a highly dramatic scene that has zero historical plausibility, when Harrison is angry that she’s not there, she comes in drenched from a downpour and tears everyone a new one about the bathroom, the coffee pot, the fact that no one is speaking to her, and “colored” pay so low she can’t afford to wear the one piece of jewelry that the dress code allows women (string of pearls). After she storms out, Harrison muses for a second, then removes the “colored” label off the coffee pot and takes a crowbar to the signs on the women’s bathrooms, saying “at NASA we all piss one color” (very effective dramatically, but it didn’t happen that way, either — and he doesn’t say what color that is). But after that, things start to go better. We get to see Alan Shepherd be the first American in space and Gus Grissom be the second one. And now that they’re all peeing in the same bathrooms, Mrs. Mitchell gets the opportunity to tell Vaughan that she has “nothing against y’all.” Vaughan says, “and I’m sure you believe that.” Ouch. (Cheers for Dorothy in the theater.)
But they’re using a different rocket for John Glenn’s space flight — the first earth orbit for Americans. A scene explains to us the rough dimensions of the math problem — they know how to apply force to get him into orbit and keep him orbiting, but they’re not clear on how to change the capsule’s path from the elliptical orbit to the parabola necessary to deposit him back in the ocean. If they get it wrong, he could be accelerated out into space, or else burn up in reentry and/or impact the sea so hard that he would be killed. Goble keeps on computing although she’s not invited to the briefings and always gets the numbers late. She has to type all the reports herself and isn’t allowed to put her name on them, even though she is doing all the math. She eventually argues Harrison and Stafford into letting her attend a briefing, where she impresses the heck out of everyone by doing a number of complex calculations on the board about the position of the twenty-square-mile window of splashdown for Glenn’s flight. The jaws of all of the white guys drop, Glenn is visibly impressed, and he uses his typical charm to lighten the mood. Still, Harrison concedes that they don’t get know how to solve the math problem referred to earlier (consistently referred to as the “go / no go” area — I never understood why from the film) to get Glenn back.
Mary files a court case (in real life, it was a city petition) to attend the white high school, but her husband (with whom she watches police beating up desegregation protestors on TV) is skeptical that she’s moving toward integration in the right way — he prefers protest, but she is not interested. Then, in another key scene where they are discussing Glenn’s re-entry, Goble says, “let’s use Euler’s method,” pulls out a math textbook, and then begins solving the problem that will allow Glenn’s capsule to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely. Whew. She has, as Harrison emphasizes repeatedly, the vision to see beyond the numbers.
Meanwhile, Dorothy’s walking down the hall and notices that they’re having to knock down the walls to get their new IBM 7090 computer through the door. She asks Mrs. Mitchell some questions and learns that it will do 24,000 calculations per minute and decides she and the gang better suck up to the machine or they will lose their jobs. (If you’re interested in more about the computer specs and how it would stack up against a modern one, this is a nice introductory article that even I understood. Yes, you could probably have flown into orbit in 1961 using the computing power resident in your smart phone. Or something.) The IBM guy is clueless about how to set it up and she notices it’s not even running. She goes to the city library to get a book about FORTRAN, which is in the whites only section, so she steals it before she gets thrown out (and then has to sit in the colored section of the bus to get home). Eventually she goes back, hooks it up correctly, and then later writes a simple program which she runs using the punch card I/O (I remember these from when I was little and my dad worked in systems analysis). She’s discovered using it by the IBM guy, who wants to throw her out until he realizes that she got his computer to start and numbers are coming out. (This is only a little ridiculous — the IBM guy would have known how to install the machine; the problem would have been scientific as opposed to business calculations, but I get that it’s hard to explain that in film.)
Now that everyone knows that Vaughan’s a computer nerd, she finally gets her promotion, at which time Mrs. Mitchell finally acknowledges her by calling her “Mrs. Vaughan.” Vaughan refuses to take the job unless she can take the West Computer Group with her — she’s been coaching them on FORTRAN and this keeps them employed. Goble gets married, but she also gets laid off from her computer group because the IBM 7090 is doing her job. They give her some pearls as a parting gift (I was thinking “well, mighty white of you” at that point, but she seemed touched). She goes back to the West Computer Group, but as they are all watching Glenn finally get ready to take off, there’s a discrepancy between calculations on the IBM and Glenn insists that Goble personally confirm the numbers. She does this in a hugely climactic but entirely made up scene that reverses the hierarchy of the bathroom run when a white guy has to run her the data. The real Goble had several days to perform this calculation (highlight — I think she’s using a Friden calculator! My mom told me about getting to use one of these once and how excited she was it performed a square root), and he takes off in full confidence. When Glenn’s heat shield is troubled, Jackson is watching and suggests a strategy that Harrison also suggests in the control room, and Glenn happily makes it back to Earth. (You can read the somewhat less dramatic story of the flight here.)
Jackson gets to go to school — her husband concedes she was right about how to move on up — but when she gets there, the professor says, “This class isn’t designed to be taught to women.” Aaaaargh. Goble (now Johnson) returns to work with the space group; Stafford gets her coffee, presumably from the integrated coffee pot; now she types her name on her research papers. And Vaughan heads the computer division, even training women from the East Computer Group.
An epilogue traces the later careers of the three women. All advanced professionally within science at NASA and also as administrators.
My reaction to the film
I admit that this was the film I needed to see yesterday. I’ve been thinking for the last ten days that the vision of the U.S. that I grew up with — of the melting pot, ever increasing integration, equality and opportunity for all, and particularly of the end of segregation and full social elevation of African Americans — has now been demolished not only in practice, where it was always lacking, but also in principle. One thing that the Trump presidency has trumpeted so far is that we’re not even going to try to live up to our reputation or change for the better. So it was wonderful to see a film that reflected that point of view, albeit a bit jarring to realize that it reflects a cultural world view that seemed to be in ascendance as recently as two weeks ago but now seems a distant memory. Those women did integrate NACA / NASA and they solved important problems. Aside from being unfair to minority groups, racial segregation wastes huge amounts of resources, human and otherwise; it is an inefficiency that our society cannot afford. It was cheering to hear the gasps of outrage in the theater at what were completely normal white / black interactions in the early 1960s. And the cheers when Mrs. Mitchell finally gave Vaughan the courtesy of her title, and when John Glenn called Goble “the smart one.”
I thought to myself after seeing the film: “you have no right to complain about anything ever again — the obstacles you have surmounted in your lifetime are nothing compared to what these folks had to do.”
The same with discrimination against women. Whether it’s legitimate or not; intersectionality is always an issue — I identify with the main characters as women and so I cheered their advancement for that reason. And I admit that at the end, when Jackson makes it into the classroom and integrates it, it’s crushing to hear that man say not what I was expecting him to say (“this class is not for colored”) but that it wasn’t for women. But Jackson tells him he can teach a woman just the way he teaches a man. So I loved the epilogue, which told us what happened to everyone: advanced degrees, promotions, supervisory roles, presidential medals, buildings named after them. Yes.
It doesn’t hurt that Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) collaborated on the soundtrack.
I am an American. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. But it will only take me so far. Now I’m putting aside my own instinctive thrill at this kind of story to tell you what bothered me about it.
The film sometimes compresses the narrative in ways that make sense (creating characters like Mrs. Mitchell and Paul Stafford who reflect common social attitudes of the period, or Al Harrison, who simplifies the NASA management structure, which we don’t need to understand to “get” the story). It also brushes over the science so as not to confuse the lay audience, which scientists agree was a good choice. (I even had my doubts that most of the audience would know the difference between an ellipse and a parabola, but it would have been hard to get it much simpler than that.) Most significantly, it delays the narrative of NASA’s integration (Vaughan was a supervisor after 1949; Langley campus was integrated in 1958). I can imagine that the atmosphere of racism persisted well afterwards, but the significant moments of formal racial integration at NASA were well over before the events of the film occurred, although naturally discrimination against women was still alive and well. I understand why the film made these choices — they simplify a complicated story, heighten the drama and underline why racial segregation was and (where it persists) remains such a disaster.
But I don’t like it, for that same reason. In making the space race the reason for NASA’s office integration, the film almost completely erases the pre-1961 lives of these women, the years of service that they had to put in to prove they were “good enough” to get where they were by the time NASA was putting manned rockets into orbit. I also feel it trivialized Jim Crow laws — which seem here mostly like an inconvenience and a time waster (which they certainly were) rather than the source not only of disadvantage but also of destruction and violence (which is why African Americans protested them and other inequalities like access to the vote). Jim Crow was a bigger problem than simply a distant bathroom. Delaying NASA’s integration until 1961 in the film makes it seem like white guys did this big heroic thing (smashing up women’s bathroom signs!) for their African American fellow citizens in order to get Americans into space — which tells quite a peculiar story. There’s a serious version of the “white savior” narrative in operation here when the real heroism came from the black people who integrated the facilities. We only get the barest indication that in real history, the Freedom Rides were going on roughly contemporaneously to the scientific events of the film.
And, as much as I admired these women, the film seems to present a strong argument for respectability politics. That is admittedly part of the story of the search for racial integration: black people demonstrating that they were “good enough” to be integrated. It’s a comforting idea — as Costner said, “I think the beauty of our movie is that when you’re done watching it, you can realize that, well, the best idea got to the top.” But in the film’s frequently dismissive or negative attitude toward protest, I also see an elision of the historical reality that in the eyes of many whites, black people could never have been sufficiently “respectable” to attain equality, no matter how many differential equations they could solve. In that first scene, the women don’t try to impress the officer with what are probably a combined 100 IQ points more than he has; rather, they’re afraid of him. Skill, intelligence and education weren’t enough to end African American subordination — if so, blacks would have been climbing out of their post-slavery circumstances in extremely large numbers within two generations after 1865. Rather, the need for the civil rights movement reflects the decision in American society to overlook their respectability deliberately — or even impede it on purpose, as with Jim Crow laws and the sort of disadvantageous economic arrangements that make no appearance in this film at all. Vaughan et al are all at least middle class. Historically speaking, blacks would have gotten nowhere if they hadn’t pointed out their mistreatment in ways highly visible and potentially threatening to white people. Similarly, they had to have the law on their side and point to this fact repeatedly. The oddity of how the film sees this problem — and an anomalous concession to its general respectability politics emphasis — is exemplified in the scene where Jackson petitions to be admitted to the night school in Hampton. She doesn’t argue for her case on the basis that she’s qualified or that federal law requires that she be admitted to the school, but by appealing to the ego of the judge (“you’ll be the first”).
I love that this is a “true story” and it’s a nice thing to be able to point when I hear from someone, yet again, that “maybe blacks aren’t as smart as us” or that “women can’t do math.” Om, no. They are; we can. And role models are important in all kinds of ways and especially for black girls and especially for potential female scientists and especially for me. At the same time, however, I don’t think blacks should have to be more respectable than everyone else. If successful solution of equations in integral calculus or the ability to pilot a man in space onto a twenty-square-mile patch of the ocean without killing him are the minimum standards for the granting of civil rights and social equality — well, I wouldn’t qualify and bet most people who are still reading at this point wouldn’t either.
As joyous as this film left me, then, the implication that protest is unnecessary or the wrong path because it’s much more gratifying if black people just “earn” their equality also left me unsettled. Even now, especially now, do we understand what it means to say that “all men are created equal”?