Mathematicians do not often get the movie star treatment. When they do, their story doesn’t always end happily. Alan Turing and John Nash come to mind. Your chances for a happy ending, when you pile on the strictures of racism and sexism on top of the stresses of mathematical virtuosity, seem even more remote. But when your one chance is a moonshot, you go for it and in the case of the biopic Hidden Figures, you succeed beyond your wildest dreams. I took my favorite math interventionist to go see this movie and for a couple glorious hours we were both uplifted and renewed. It still feels like a soothing balm.
In 1961 Katherine Goble later Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three real-life African-American women, were working for NASA. It is the height of the space race and things are not going well for America. The Russians are beating the pants off of us. They were employed as ‘computers’ at NASA’s Langley headquarters in southern Virginia. As computers, their jobs were to perform the engineering calculations by hand that today are now performed by machines. As computers they worked as subordinates to their universally white and male engineering colleagues. As computers they did the grunt work that no one else wanted to do.
Although, our three protagonists commute and socialize together, at work they are soon split apart. Jackson goes to the wind tunnel to test Mercury space capsules and hopefully become a real engineer one day. Vaughan de facto supervises the Colored computers, without any recognition and Globe the math prodigy is tasked to formulate the orbital mechanics for the Mercury project.
Among the cast are a few white people of note. Kevin Costner plays the color blind but cold NASA director who accepts Goble as soon as she demonstrates her worthiness, but discards her just as quickly, when she is no longer required. Kristen Dunst plays Vaughan’s nemesis and Jim Parsons shows us that Sheldon Cooper without the laugh track is unrelentingly hateful. It is not surprising that in a movie centered around these black women that it is the whites who are the caricatures and not the other way around. It is just different.
Much has been made of the bathroom sequences. Globe in her new assignment works in a building without Colored bathrooms. In 1961, Virginia is still the segregated south. Globe has to run, in high heels, the mile back to her old digs, just to take a leak. The resonance with today’s trans bathroom controversies is unmistakable. Our three protagonists conquer the twin devils of racism and sexism, but a third threat arises, automation. All I can say is lookout Mr. IBM.
Since, the movie is historically relevant, is rated PG and is all about math and science, Anne plans on recommending seeing it to her own math prodigies. If you see it, be sure to stay for the credits. The photo montage is just fantastic.