Film Review: Hidden Figures
As a kid who obsessed about the space program back in the 1970s and 1980s, it's embarrassing (but not surprising) that I had no idea who Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were. I became familiar with Mrs. Johnson when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The three were African-American women who worked as computers at NASA and its original organization, NACA. This was the era when a computer was a person, not a machine.
Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name (which I've not read but is now on my list), is the story of these three women. It's fictionalized, with some composite characters, some events reordered, but at its core it shows us three remarkable woman who were essential in getting the United States into space. Its primary focus is Katherine Johnson, who was a master of celestial navigation. We see the challenges they faced with the casual sexism and racism of the era. The film has a ton of heart - in just two hours we really get to feel the lives of these woman and their families.
I found the film loaded with amusing moments but also tragically sad moments. I think one sequence of dialogue really summed up the tragedy for me:
Karl Zielinski: Mary, a person with an engineer's mind should be an engineer. You can't be a computer the rest of your life.
Mary Jackson: Mr. Zielinski, I'm a negro woman. I'm not gonna entertain the impossible.
Karl Zielinski: And I'm a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I'm standing beneath a spaceship that's going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary Jackson: I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one.