A Look Into the Lives of NASA’s Invisible Heroes

In the opening act of “Hidden Figures,” released in theaters on December 25, 2016, we meet our three world-changing heroines in front of a broken down blue Ford Mustang on a lonely two-lane highway in Hampton, Virginia.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is merely a pair of stout legs sticking out from under the car’s bonnet, with her bright beige stockings covering her black skin. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is sitting in the car with her nerdy glasses on and her eyes set on the road, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is slumped over the bumper doing her makeup with a sass in her tone that wouldn’t mind a little trouble.

NASA's hidden figures

art by Tiffany Zhong

A closer look at this scene shows us what an exquisite job director Theodore Melfi did—we not only get a sense of each character, but an accurate taste of the American South in 1961.

Melfi’s choice to zoom in on the beige of Vaughan’s stockings puts us in her shoes for a moment. Perhaps stockings that would reveal her true skin color were simply not an option for her, or maybe she wore beige to avoid judgment from others. Whatever the reason, her stockings remind us of how black Americans in the ‘60s were alienated by their own country—a country in which many of them were valuable members of the workforce.

A relationship dynamic is established immediately among the three. When a white cop drives by and asks them belittling questions, Jackson can’t seem to hold herself in, until she realizes that it could get the others into trouble. Johnson, on the other hand, wants to avoid trouble at all costs, which shows from the stern expression on her face, and Vaughan does all the talking, almost as if she is the main adult.

Our three heroines have a common story: they work for NASA. That’s right—they’re working towards zero-gravity calculations that would help lift a man off the Earth, while most black people in that time were not allowed a fair education.

The film continues to shine light on the stories of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson as they work towards calculations for the launch of John Glenn’s 1962 mission to become the first man to orbit the Earth. The times are competitive: the Soviets had already launched their own satellite into orbit, leaving the NASA team pressured to get their game on for a chance to win the vicious Space Race.

Johnson’s white manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), is the first character we meet whose role is somewhat problematic. Harrison is supposed to be depicted as an unremarkable man in the story. Although it was necessary to include him in the film, he is often over-shown, and his character does not fit well into the theme of “Hidden Figures”.

By separating Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson’s work lives into different scenes and settings, Melfi is able to show us each of their stories with much more focus. This not only organizes the content of the film, but allows us to individually appreciate Spencer, Henson, and Monáe’s awe-inspiring performances.

One simply cannot forget the silent frustration of the scene when Jackson walks over to her workplace’s lounge, where there is normally a shared coffee pitcher. Instead, she finds a “colored” pitcher set up just for her, and to no surprise, when she turns it over, nothing pours into her mug. She sighs and uses the “white” pitcher instead.

Even more painful are the repeated scenes of Johnson running a mile and a half across the campus just to get to the nearest colored bathroom. As viewers, we start to rely on her tolerance of having to do this every day, once again, making us believe that she is the kind of character who wants to avoid trouble. But when Harrison asks Johnson why her bathroom breaks are so long, Melfi gives us a startling surprise by having her shout angrily in response.

However, by placing such emphasis on Johnson’s experiences, Melfi creates a somewhat unfair hierarchy of the three women’s stories. With Johnson at the top, the rest of the film seems to spend an unfortunate amount of time juggling between Vaughan and Jackson’s much shorter scenes. Nonetheless, they are well-woven in and are complemented by exquisite performances from Spencer and Monáe.

Melfi does a fine job of tying our heroines’ personal lives into the story, adding touching moments of Jackson’s marriage, Johnson’s life at home with her husband and children, and Vaughan’s dedication to her church. While these women’s work lives made them stand-out heroes in history, they also had family, friends, and love, just like any average person.

The challenges that “Hidden Figures” faces as a historical film are endless. Due to time and budget, for example, the film has to hide much of the reality of the 1960s. Evidently, the Civil Rights Movement was heated during this time period, and more current events could have been highlighted in the film. For example, segregation had ended entirely in the Southern railway system in 1961, which clearly was a newsworthy and historical event.

However, Melfi leaves major issues like segregation and discrimination to be portrayed in more intimate scenes, like Johnson’s experience with the coffee pitcher. Melfi may have done this to keep matters simple, but incorporating more events into his plot could have been a nice addition if not overdone.

In the time frame of less than a century, our country has seen many changes in terms of racism, discrimination, and segregation, but the fact that it has taken nearly 50 years for figures like Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan to gain widespread recognition for their achievements is indicative of the unconscious racial divides that still exist today. Unfortunately, many of us still dismiss racism as a tired topic or a solved issue, and we often ignore the racism in our politics, media, and daily lives.

These three hidden figures are not alone. There is a treasure trove of underrepresented heroes who have changed our history for the better, and their names are eagerly waiting to be discovered by the spotlight.

Take Eunice Hunton Carter, for example, who was one of New York’s first female African American lawyers, defying racial and gender barriers. Another example is Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian computer scientist who moved to the United States and invented a formula that allowed for the creation of the internet altogether.

Even though February, a time nationally known as “Black History Month,” has come to an end, publications and news sources across the web still strive to spread word of such unsung heroes. Hopefully, more movies like “Hidden Figures” will be made to help us appreciate them all someday.

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