Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
published by William Marrow, 2016
Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi
released by 20th Century Fox, 2016
If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.
The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.
While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.
The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:
As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”
A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….
I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).
While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.
Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.
One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.
I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.
Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:
“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”
Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.
Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”
To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).
Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.