Spoilers ahead… proceed at your own risk.
Hidden Figures, the story of three black women working at NASA in the 1960s is the most important movie of the year. The acting is strong, and the storytelling is well-constructed, but that’s not what makes this a vital film for 2016 (and 2017 and beyond). What makes Hidden Figures essential viewing is what it has to say about America then and now, and the lessons it teaches us for how to make the most of our future.
A quick overview: Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan: three brilliant black women working at NASA who had to battle both sexism and racism in the 1960s. Each faces a battle: Johnson fights to be taken seriously as a mathematician while dealing with segregated bathrooms and bigoted colleagues, Jackson has the skills to be an engineer but can only get the credentials by attending classes at a whites only school, and Vaughan, who is doing the work of a supervisor without the appropriate bump in pay, works to get equal pay and recognition while learning to use the new technology that will quickly make her and her fellow number crunchers obsolete. Each woman’s story has a lesson for modern America.
At first, Johnson’s colleagues are more concerned with where she pees and which coffee pot she uses than with safely getting the Mercury 7 astronauts in and out of space. They allow their deep seated racism and sexism to blind them to the fact that Johnson is a brilliant mathematician who is able to not only contribute to their efforts but lead them. In today’s America, we often spend so much time trying to keep women, people of color, and immigrants down that we lose out on the unique contributions that people can make when they are supported rather than denigrated.
Jackson wants to be an engineer, but she is blocked in her quest by the fact that the classes she needs to take to enter the training program are only offered at an all white school. For those who know their history, the supreme court invalidated school segregation in 1954, but gave the states time to adjust to the new practice. Apparently 7 years was insufficient for Virginia. She wants to improve her employment prospects and further her education, but Jackson has to petition the court just for the opportunity to take the classes to become an engineer. In this case a judge rules in her favor and the rest is history; she became an engineer and worked over many years to bring more people of color and women into the fold at NASA. Here, once again, the country allowed its bigotry to blind it to the talents of an intelligent black woman, and it was only through a legal battle that she was able to secure her basic rights. Imagine what she could have down without these ridiculous, arbitrary road blocks constantly thrown in her path.
Finally, Dorothy Vaughan has the clearest message for 2016 and beyond. With the arrival of an IBM machine at NASA, the jobs of the women who work in computation are under threat. Does Vaughan demand that NASA keep employing her and her colleagues in the same jobs despite technological advances? No, she learns how to use the IBM (with the help of a book on Fortran that she has to take from the library because she can’t check out books from the whites only section… seriously people upholding racist institutions is so exhausting). Once she teaches herself how to use the new monstrosity of a machine (it takes up an entire large room) She then teaches her entire section of about 20 women (that she is still not officially the supervisor of) to work the IBM as well. So that, when the time comes, she and her team know the new technology better than the techs from IBM. Through education and innovation, Vaughan made herself indispensable and she taught others so they could improve their employment prospects as well. The lesson is clear; today we need to evolve. Rather than trying to bring back the jobs of the past, we need to train the workforce for the jobs of the future.
When a movie like Hidden Figures comes out, people usually will say that it is essential viewing for young girls, and in particular young black girls. That is true and I hope they flock to the film, but I really hope that boys and men find their way to this film. I hope that they will see that when we support racist and sexist institutions, we all lose.