Revealing human figures among the “computers”

"Hidden Figures" tells the inspiring story of three African-American female mathematicians whose work for NASA helped launch John Glenn into space.

MPAA Rating: PG
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5 reels)

Hidden Figures is a bit of a tough sell marketwise: three African-American female mathematicians work at NASA and help get John Glenn into space. Yet despite its ordinary setting of chalkboards, coffee, horned rimmed glasses, and Baptist casserole picnics, it is an extraordinary film in nearly every respect. It is this attention to ordinary people, so often forgotten yet essential to daily living, that needs to be shown again and again. Pope Francis called these people “the margins.” That’s true, but I would also call them “delightful.”

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) work as computers—yes, computers—in the early days of NASA, when the Russians had just put the first man into space and the Americans hadn’t put up so much as a toaster. If referring to people as computers sounds strange or demeaning, it wasn’t at the time. These women did just that—computed calculations, which needed to be done by hand. All three have happy, thriving families, although Johnson was recently widowed. Yet outside the home, they face discrimination twice over being both colored and female. For example, there is only one bathroom they can use on campus, which in Katherine’s case means walking nearly a half mile there and back every time. There are even separate coffee makers, and they are expected to brew their own. Most of their white or male co-workers aren’t overtly racist, they are just raised in an atmosphere where it is never questioned. 

Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the Space Task Force, informs his workers that they “need to invent math that doesn’t yet exist” in order to put their man into space. Johnson disagrees, insisting they use Euclidian geometry to solve the problem. “That math’s ancient,” a co-worker sneers. It is old, yes, but it works. Similarly, most people in the film—black and white alike—can’t see a solution to racism, and some insist on new, more violent methods of bringing social change. Johnson demonstrates the answer is not found in something novel but in rediscovering the common humanity of all people, recognizing that “in Christ there is no master or slave, Jew or Greek.” Frustrated by the oppression, she defiantly explains the situation to Harrison, who immediately understands that such prejudices are unjust—and also inefficient to achieving their common goal. He takes crowbar to the “colored” sign above her restroom, grumbling that “at NASA we all pee the same color.”

In this way, Hidden Figures is quite bold in its assertion that oppression is wrong not because it targets a minority but because it targets a human being. This highlights the problem with modern identity politics. On the one hand, there are experiences unique to a group based on their perceived ethnic or racial background; on the other, drawing such lines can further push people apart. As both black and female in the workplace, our three protagonists are in a unique position to see how all lines can be damaging, irrespective of which line on happens to cross your path.

These hidden assumptions about race and gender are also seen in their men. Jackson’s husband thinks their community should be doing more to challenge Jim Crow laws, and it takes him awhile to realize how his wife is already working on it. Johnson meets a former soldier who is proud and valiant, yet doesn’t see her unique talents beyond the domestic sphere. If he wants to be a part of her life he must acknowledge her important role outside the home. He eventually understands. “I underestimated you,” he tells her, “and I’m sorry.” As of the writing of this review, they are in their fifty-sixth year of marriage. None of these men are fools, but some have to learn to give their spouses the space necessary to fulfill God’s plan. 

In all of these interactions, the central lesson is that our real enemy is not each other but “principalities and powers.” Never once does Hidden Figures suggest that men or whites are evil but rather that prejudice is in all of us. Man’s response should not be to fight one another, but to learn and grow. For example, Vaughen discovers that NASA has just ordered one of the first “electrical computers” from a then unknown company called IBM. She quickly surmises that she and her friends will be out of a job. Rather than smash the machine or protest inevitable change, she stays up late learning the coding language Fortran so that when a supervisor is needed for the new machine, she is the best choice. She then hires all her former co-workers and teaches them as well. This reveals how real progress is made: by respecting God-given human dignity and acknowledging the appropriate transformations that must take place in one’s daily life. We can reach for the stars, but only after taking care of our business on Earth first. 

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.