The theme for International Women's Day this year is ‘Choose to Challenge’ — calling gender inequalities and celebrating women's achievements. Many years before the world recognised the need to celebrate the achievements, three women of colour in 1960s America made pioneering contributions to NASA’s historic space missions, including John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth.
These women were Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — unmatched mathematicians and engineers of the segregation-era America and who faced discrimination not only of their colour but also gender. And they beat the odds to pave way for generations of women to be recognised for their abilities despite their gender. Hidden Figures (2016) is a biographical film that traces their story.
Based loosely on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (published 2016), Hidden Figures (the film) is the story of the three women who consistently out-think their higher-ranked male colleagues, their struggles and sheer willpower. The film opens at the oldest of NASA's field centres — the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia — in 1961. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) work as computers (the era when the term was used for persons performing mathematical calculations).
Katherine’s superlative skills in analytic geometry lead her to be assigned to assist Al Harrison's Space Task Group. The head engineer Paul Stafford is dismissive of a woman being on the core team despite her being the first Black woman to do so. Stafford goes to the extent of removing her name from reports and taking sole credit for all her work.
It is not only at work, but Katherine has to battle misogyny at the personal front when she courts National Guard Lt Col Jim Johnson who openly voices his scepticism on women's mathematical abilities. Despite that Katherine impresses Harrison by solving a complex mathematical equation from redacted documents at a time when America is under pressure to send astronauts into space after the Soviet Union's successful launch of Yuri Gagarin.
Mary is assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, where she immediately identifies a design flaw. She applies for an official NASA engineer position but realises that she has to take additional courses despite her stellar degrees in mathematics and physical science. Mary overcomes not only her resistant husband, but also wins the court battle for permission to attend night classes at the all-white Hampton High School.
Dorothy Vaughan is long overdue for promotion. But she soon realises that she and her team are facing impending unemployment with human computers being replaced with electronic ones. She steals a book on programming from the library’s all-white section and teaches herself and her African-American women co-workers programming to (wo)man the IBM computers. She is eventually promoted to supervise the Programming Department. But her frustration with her stagnation at work does not make her selfish or a defeatist. Instead, she has her team’s back when she agrees to the promotion only if her 30 co-workers are transferred to the department as well.
Written, directed and produced by Theodore Melfi (of the St Vincent fame), the film celebrates not only the individual achievements of the women but also portrays a humane side to their struggle. They make time for the relationships in their life and never take their friendship for granted. You see a sense of solidarity and having each other’s backs when they are genuinely concerned about the other, or when two of them wait in the parking lot if one is stuck at work, just so that they can drive home together. In today’s age of sisters-over-misters, this might seem a given. But remember that this is the 1960s we are talking about.
On International Women’s Day, as you “Choose To Challenge”, do watch Hidden Figures on Hotstar to see how women chose to challenge entrenched biases and pushed boundaries in past.