by Lee Hull Moses
In August, we’re looking for the gospel Good News in books, movies, and musicals. This Sunday, we begin with the movie Hidden Figures, the little-known story of African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960’s. The following is a review I wrote shortly after seeing the movie in January. It was originally published in the Christian Century magazine on January 19, 2017.
On the third snow day in a row, when the streets were clear enough for everything but school buses and my daughter had worked her way through two and a half Harry Potter books while sitting in my office, I gave up any pretense of trying to get work done and took her to the movies instead.
We saw Hidden Figures, based on the true story of three African American women working as scientists and mathematicians at NASA in the early days of the space program. The film’s main characters – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – are just three of the black women whose stories have been hidden behind those of the more famous (white, male) astronauts they helped launch into space. Johnson is amazing with numbers and can figure out any mathematical problem. Jackson becomes NASA’s first black female engineer. Vaughan teaches herself computer code so she can program the brand new – and hilariously gigantic – IBM.
The film is chock full of girl power. These are fierce, brilliant women, making their way in a profession that has no room for their gender or their skin color. They are sassy when it’s called for, sneaky when there’s no other choice, and smarter than anybody else in the room.
And yet, these women manage to have well-rounded lives beyond their jobs. This movie understands that women can be more than one thing at once — parent, partner, professional — and in no particular hierarchical order. Only once does one of Johnson’s children comment on her long working hours, and Johnson handles it with such humor and grace that we are assured that neither is she consumed with working-mom guilt nor is her family neglected by her job. Notably, that one comment made it into the trailer, implying a struggle that doesn’t really exist in the film. It’s as if Hollywood could scarcely conceive of a movie about working women in which the primary conflict isn’t career vs. struggling family.
This movie also understands vocation: these women are not just working to pay the bills; they’re working because they like the work, they’re good at it, and it’s making a difference in the world. It’s not just a dream that Mary Jackson has to become an engineer; it’s a calling, one she could hardly avoid if she tried.
Hidden FIgures is about more than race, but it is, of course, also about race. The same PG rating that made it a perfect snow day movie for my fourth-grader meant that it was a pretty sanitized look at the state of race relations in America in the 60s. A side conversation about the firebombing of a freedom rider bus hints at the violent reality of the civil rights movement happening beyond the walls of NASA, but mild condescension and separate bathrooms and coffee pots seem to be the biggest hardships in the mathematicians’ workday. Not to make light of those particular hardships: we ought to always be appalled at the utter inhumanity of segregated bathrooms, and movies like this help remind us of our sinful past.
Still, we should be cautious in watching this film and congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come. The plotlines all wrap up tidily, with each main character breaking through the color barrier. Throughout the film, we are meant to celebrate each small victory over prejudice. “At NASA,” Kevin Costner’s character says after smashing the sign on the colored bathroom, “We all pee the same color.” It makes for a good line, but as we’ve learned in the decades since desegregation became law, declaring racism over does not make it so.
The most telling moment in the film happens between Dorothy Vaughan and her supervisor, a white woman who seems to be supportive but has blocked Vaughan’s path to becoming a supervisor herself. “You know, Dorothy,” she says, “I really don’t have anything against y’all.” Vaughan looks at her for a long moment, and says, “I know you probably believe that.” That this conversation happens while they’re standing at the sink in the newly integrated women’s room serves as a stark reminder that the problem of race in America is far more complicated than lack of access to bathrooms, classrooms, and boardrooms.
The backdrop of this story about gender and race is the fast-growing space program. Every calculation these women do is designed to help propel an American beyond earth’s atmosphere, something that’s never been done before. The math needed to do this unthinkable feat, we’re told more than once throughout the film, doesn’t even exist yet; they’re making it up as they go along. And what’s not to love about a good spaceflight story? Even though I knew from the history books that John Glenn would make it back to earth after that first orbit, I held my breath when his heat shield appeared to be failing, and cheered when he splashed safely into the Atlantic.
We need a feel good story about America right about now, and Hidden Figures serves well. We need stories that remind us that things once were worse and we made them better, that we can do impossible things, that we can be better than we are. We need to hear the stories that have been too long ignored. We need to be reminded that just because we don’t know how to do something – shattering the glass ceiling, ending racism, or flying to the stars – doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it our very best.