Night at the movies

It had been a couple of months since we’d been to the movies, so recently my husband and I decided to see Hidden Figures, the movie about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, three African American mathematicians who worked for NASA in 1961. We wanted something uplifting, inspirational, maybe even aspirational — in short, a diversion for a couple of hours from this new world we’re living in.

Turns out, that’s a lofty goal. Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot to enjoy about Hidden Figures. It’s entertaining, the actors are accomplished, everyone cheers at the end. Definitely go see it, and if you know any girls who love math and science, take them too.

But as I sat in the dark watching three women fight hard against segregation and sexism, I couldn’t escape feeling that not much has changed. These women were brilliant, educated pioneers in a field whose history until recently only acknowledged the swagger of John Glenn and scientific contributions from men whose names came first on research papers because they were the ones in charge.

Rather than an escape, Hidden Figures held a mirror up to our country right now, and the picture wasn’t pretty in terms of national priorities and progress.

The imperative of the American space program in 1961 was to beat the Russians to space. Anything less than that was failure, not just of imagination but of national pride. Part of the reason Katherine and other women were even brought into NASA was that despite their gender and color, their skills were essential to achieve that goal. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do we have that same spirit today? Will NASA return as a national priority, years after its influence has waned as a result of budget cuts?

I was a child during the early 1960s, when Hidden Figures takes place. My family lived for a while in Kentucky, and as I watched Katherine and her friends navigate separate bathrooms and water fountains, I remembered clearly the times when I saw two drinking fountains, one labeled white and one colored, and buildings with two entrances, one in front and a second one either at the side or in back. Those memories mixed with the ones on the screen, and I was back to being four and thinking all I want is a drink of water.

It struck me, sitting in that theatre as an adult, that despite the vintage feel of the movie, the problems with race and prejudice obviously aren’t past history at all. While we celebrate the women in the film, it’s hard to deny the fact that racial and gender-based prejudice divide us as much today as they did back then. In fact, today’s uncertainty surrounding immigration bans and deportations expands that prejudice, and it’s not hard to imagine what those policies mean today not only on a human level, but in terms of our nation’s values and progress. It’s as damning now as it’s always been.

The movie ends with photographs onscreen of the real-life Katherine, Mary and Dorothy along with summaries of their professional careers. One image shows Katherine, at 97, receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. That’s the triumph of the film: the belated recognition it gives NASA’s women scientists and mathematicians, and acknowledgment of the vital role they played in the success of America’s space program.

Hidden Figures is all kinds of girl power, and triumph over circumstance, and girls can and should be proud to be smart and work hard and succeed. It’s a message we need to hear; I just wish I could’ve enjoyed it without the shadow I felt creeping over it.