In the age of heated racial discussions and political fighting, Hidden Figures, the untold story of three black women at NASA is both timely and interesting. Hidden figures has become a top selling movie at the box office and a New York Times bestselling book that continues to sell months after its release.
STEM program alumni, African Americans and cultures of all ages were drawn to the film upon its release in early 2017. The movie had an all-star cast including academy award winners,Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Lesley and Kevin Costner. The story of the women in Hidden Figures follows the real life stories of unsung NASA heroes, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn.
During the first 30 minutes of the film, I feared boredom. As a person raised in the north with strong exposure to art, music and theatre, I was afraid that this math-based saga wouldn't have enough energy to hold my attention for two hours.
My same fears translated to the book as I opened the first pages to find out the back story of the now famous women at NASA who helped change the world in space exploration. I greatly admire the women and love the untold story, but my fears of being completely bored and overwhelmed with a story rich in mathematics and theory were valid in my first few minutes of reading and watching the movie.
The book starts with the long story behind the space program in the 1940’s. The movie starts at the peak of the women’s work, giving a brief background on the love and success in math and science studies.
Hidden Figures book was harder to keep my attention with its long descriptions of hallways, offices and government facilities. In spite of this, the book did provide something the movie didn't. There was an abundance of information about the journey of the women and how they managed to get jobs at NASA during a time of racial tension, protests and segregation.
The need for those with high level math skills was great. Technology was evolving but not fast enough to keep up with the space program. The movie speeds through this part and skips straight to the main story. It's hard to understand how and why they got jobs, but the book provides a greater sense of NASA's needs and how many women of color and whites were hired to help fill the gaps in a very male dominated industry. The need was so great that it superseded race and gender. The government needed people highly skilled in math and science and they needed them to help make the country’ programs stronger.
The need for staff wasn't just at NASA in the 1950’s and 60’s. According to the book, technology advancements in the 1940's were a cause for more jobs in many government departments that required more engineering and math-based jobs.
The movie misses a lot fo this journey since time is limited on what can be included in the film. The While segregation, racism and the treatment of blacks was horrible, there were some highlights the women enjoyed in their lives that was missed.
On the big screen we saw the women get married and have families, but there were other successful elements that didn’t make the storyline in the movie.
Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer, graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, a historically black college or HBCU. This factwas omitted from the movie. Vaughn and Mary Jackson were both members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an exclusive black sorority focused on sisterhood and the advancement of black women.
Katherine Johnson’s strength and confidence were highlighted in the film but the book provided more details about the long hours and her personal journey.
The women also enjoyed great neighborhoods with working class and middle class blacks. The movies shows the neighborly attitude with community gatherings but the book gives a better picture of the lovely homes the women created for themselves in the community.
The movie does highlight segregation in a way that’s difficult to capture in a book. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Kevin Costner tore down the “Colored” bathroom sign to help Katherine do her job without walking a mile each day to a colored bathroom across the NASA campus.
Overall, Hidden Figures is a compelling story that needed to be told. The book and the movie shed light on African American women who contributed to society, but lacked mainstream recognition. It's a great story for younger generations who need to see the history of blacks, segregation and diversity.