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A Hunger for Films about ‘Hidden Figures’

Darleen Ortega | 1/10/2017, 4:39 p.m.
The opinionated judge Darlene Ortega reviews "Hidden Figures."
Photo courtesy Hopper Stone/20th Century Fox

I am often struck by the narrow range of stories that see the light of day in American films and popular media. The films we have had up to now about the American space program, for example, depict rooms full of white men and, in general, what few films we have depicting black women rarely center on their experience and certainly don't involve their contributions to American history or scientific exploration. Contrary to the excuse offered by Kevin Costner in a recent MSNBC interview, the stories we are missing on screen are not necessarily found in history books, nor can their absence from popular media be explained by the view that, really, "how many stories can you tell?"

The black women whose mathematical skills powered the American space program in the 1960s would still be unknown to most of us were it not for a recent book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which became the basis for the new film "Hidden Figures." The film focuses on three of the many women whose lives are explored in Shetterly's book, and provides a long-neglected window into their particular stories and the larger context for the women who worked as "computers" in the space program in the mid-20th century.

It is about time we learned these stories, and I do mean to urge everyone to see this film, which gives a flavor of the contributions of such women and the barriers they faced to build their careers. I hope, however, that we will avoid what appears to be a widespread temptation to minimize those barriers and to over-applaud Hollywood for giving us one film in which accomplished and intelligent women of color are the central focus. This is at best a start, and by no means a perfect one; our hunger for such stories should not divert us from pushing for a broader range of narratives and for those stories to be told with less pandering to the dominant culture.

The three real-life women at the center of the film, engagingly played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, are among a large number of black women who were employed as human "computers" before machines could do that work. Women with the right skills were thought to be more likely to approach the task of mathematical calculation with the necessary dogged attention to detail -- but in the segregated South, black women did the work in a separate section of NASA, with separate bathrooms and cafeterias.

The film devotes some attention to the realities of life under segregation. Henson's character, Katherine Johnson, has to run half a mile in heels in all weather just to get to the nearest "colored" ladies room to relieve herself; her male colleagues undermine her and take credit for her work, and install a separate "colored" coffee pot for her, the only person of color in her unit. Spencer's character, Dorothy Vaughn, supervises a department for years without the benefit of the title or pay that goes along with it, and she and her sons are kicked out of the local public library for not confining themselves to the poorly-stocked colored section. Monáe's character, Mary Jackson, has to petition the city to allow her to take the courses she needs to pursue an engineering degree because they are only taught in an all-white school. The level of specificity depicted here is more than we usually see.