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Maths In The Movies
Movie Review - Hidden Figures - An Important Film
25th February 2017
Movie reviewed by our very own Claudia Constable:
Hidden figures is an important film. It tells the true story of the remarkable women who overcame the racist and sexist prejudices of the time to be instrumental in some of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, including launching the late, great John Glenn into orbit and returning him safely to earth.
We previously featured the true story of Katherine Johnson played by Taraji P Henson, and her amazing contribution to the space race, and we were thrilled to see this film, based on the non-fiction book ‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’ which centres on Johnson and two of her colleagues Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monáe, and Dorothy Vaughn played by Octavia Spencer.
Johnson used her talent for mathematics to calculate the trajectory to put a man in space and on the moon, among many other projects. Vaughn became the first African-American woman to become a supervisor at NASA and headed up the first team of female NASA computer programmers and Jackson fought against segregation laws to become the first NASA African-American female engineer.
Mary Jackson (left) and Dorothy Vaughn
It is an important story because we have never heard it before. Despite these amazing women’s accomplishments, we had never heard of them. Not only that but I don’t think any of us at ConquerMaths headquarters even knew that NASA had employed black women back then!
The film does take quite a bit of artistic license, while there certainly was a great deal of discrimination for these women to deal with, it is in places exaggerated. An iconic scene in the trailer shows Kevin Costner’s character (a composite character of several NASA bosses) smashing the sign of a ‘coloured bathroom’ when he realises that Johnson must waste time travelling a long way to get to one.
In reality Johnson used the ‘white’ toilets for a couple of years before someone challenged her, and even then, she just ignored them, but many of her colleagues did have to suffer this indignity and also had to eat in a separate section of the canteen.
There never was any sign smashing, nor did they mistake her for a cleaner when she arrived. Johnson’s character in real life was such that she simply ignored prejudice or worked around it. Her daughter Joylette said “We lived in a segregated environment, it was real and all around us — water fountains, buses, schools. But my mother didn’t have time for it. I think she has always had a strong feeling of self-worth that was instilled by her father, who taught her she was no better but no worse than anybody else. She wouldn’t be intimidated or denied. But she didn’t do any of this for recognition, or to make a political statement. She did it for the challenge and to be at the cutting edge of science.”
Johnson in the 1960's
“She wouldn’t be intimidated or denied.” That statement says it all, and the movie, for all its Hollywoodization and melodrama, does hold true to this sentiment. The women just don’t give up. They know how to work with numbers and they rely upon this ability to sustain their worth.
Mathematics knows no colour or creed, it does not discriminate by gender either. If the numbers add up, it makes no difference who is making the calculations and that is one of the beautiful things about mathematics. As Johnson’s character says “Maths is always reliable”.
Johnson and her colleagues didn’t have computers or calculators, they used their brains, pencil and paper – sheer brain power. Johnson made calculations that had never been thought of yet alone applied to do the seemingly impossible. Her numbers spoke for themselves, and her colleagues were forced to accept and respect her because her numbers were always right – even John Glenn refused to go up into space until “that girl” had checked the numbers. When she demonstrated her calculations for getting him back from space in the movie, he smiles and says “I like her numbers” and the numbers were all that really mattered.
John Glenn in front of the shuttle that Johnson calculated the trajectory for.
Because of the Second World War Roosevelt passed a law outlawing any "discrimination in the employment of workers in defence industries or government because of race, creed, colour, or national origin" although it said nothing about gender. This enabled the teams of black and white to work together towards a greater good, utilising every bright brain available and trying to suppress their ingrained prejudices but women were still seen as inferior. Official segregation was also alive and well outside of NASA’s walls, which is well portrayed in the film, to the point of uncomfortable viewing.
One moment that I found particularly uncomfortably eye-opening is when Dorothy Vaughn tries to check out a book on Fortran computer programming to educate herself and save her career as NASA prepares to start using IBM computers. It turns out the book is restricted to whites only, and she and her children are thrown out of the library, however she manages to smuggle it out, and when her son asks if she took the book, she defiantly tells him “Son, I pay taxes. And taxes paid for everything in that library. You can’t take something you’ve already paid for!” It’s a brilliant moment and highlights how the whole system was set up to keep African American down, and how only by quiet rebellion and relying on their brains could they succeed.
I recently re-watched the 1995 classic film Apollo 13… there were an awful lot of scenes set at NASA, showing the various teams of hard working white men all trying to figure out how to get the ill-fated astronauts home. Not once did I see a single black woman and yet the official accounts clearly state that Johnson was there, working closely with the team and playing a significant part in getting the shuttle home.
It is almost as if she and her colleagues were quietly edited out of history and that is a disgrace. Women and minorities often still believe that they have no place in STEM fields, partly due to the fact they have so few visible role models. These black women succeeded in smashing through the barriers, and accomplished these fantastic things, back during a time when it could be genuinely dangerous to do so – and then they were forgotten about by the wider world. When I told a friend about the film he genuinely didn’t believe it was a true story and scoffed at the very idea!
It’s an injustice, pure and simple and that is why everyone needs to see this film, we need to give credit where credit is due, and well overdue at that.
It’s important to acknowledge that NASA themselves were not necessarily responsible for this injustice, they were to a certain extent happy to recognize these women’s accomplishments in the form of awards and promotions but we’d still never heard of them.
In 2015, President Barak Obama selected Johnson – at the age of 98 - to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour that the United States can bestow on a civilian.
In 2016 the book was published, followed by this gem of a film and now the whole world is going to know about these incredible women. Take your daughters and your sons to see this and show them how mathematics and courage can enable them to accomplish absolutely anything they want to.