FILM: HIDDEN FIGURES
CAST: Taraji P. Henso, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali
DIRECTOR: Theodore Melfi
Few accomplishments in American history have been as celebrated as the nation’s space program and those first soaringly idealistic journeys to take humankind into the cosmos we’d contemplated since history’s dawn. President Kennedy has been hailed for galvanizing the country to dream big; the astronauts who flew the perilous early flights into the unknown have become icons; and the meticulous male NASA engineers at mission control have been lauded for their grit and tenacity under pressure.
Yet there remain unsung and unlikely heroes of the space race – particularly, a team of female mathematicians who blazed multiple trails, trails towards greater diversity in science, equality in America, for human mathematical achievement and to launch John Glenn into mesmerizing orbit at more than 17000 miles per hour as he circled three times around the globe in space.
It was a time in the U.S. when opportunities could seem unjustly limited – that was true if you were a woman, if you were African-American, and especially if you were an African-American woman. Yet these dazzlingly smart NASA women flouted the limitations without fanfare, redefining the entire idea of what was possible – and who is vital to the nation — by proving themselves absolutely essential to America’s future.
For Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henso), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), the chance to use their knowledge, passion and skills opened up just as the demands of World War II were shifting the nation’s social fabric. On the factory front, women were suddenly invited to become Rosie the Riveters. Less famously, the same thing was happening in science and math. Faced with a daunting shortage of male scientists and mathematicians and with new laws prohibiting racial discrimination, defense contractors and Federal Agencies began seeking out women and African-Americans with the skills to keep pushing essential research onwards.
Director Theodore Melfi explains: “For NASA, at that moment in time, brains were more important than race or sex. These were brilliant women who could do the math they needed, who were hungry for a chance, who really wanted the opportunity to change their lives – so who else were they going to turn to?”
At the Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton, Virginia – run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, or NACA, a precursor to NASA – the search was on for luminous minds from nonconventional backgrounds. They needed gifted people to serve as “human computers” – that is those rare people with the grey matter to complete rapid-fire, advanced calculations in their minds, before the age of digital super computers that could precisely plot out rocket trajectories and re-entry paths.
Recalls Katherine G. Johnson of Sputnik: “All our engineers were mad somebody else did it first. But what most people didn’t know was that we were right behind the Russians and we were ready.”
It was in this context, that NACA became NASA and all of its scientists and mathematicians, including the “human computers,” shifted into the space program at high velocity.