I recently watched the Best Picture-nominated film Hidden Figures, which is a biographical film featuring three African-American female mathematicians — or “computers” — at NASA during the early 1960s. The film sheds lights on their individual and collective struggles to earn personal and professional respect, both as women and as African-Americans in a field dominated with white males. The three female leads all deliver top-notch performances: Taraji P. Henson as brilliant mathematician Katherine G. Johnson; Octavia Spencer in an Oscar-nominated performance as mathematician and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan; and Janelle Monáe as firecracker engineer Mary Jackson.
Here’s an official trailer for Hidden Figures:
Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson all accomplished firsts during their lives:
- Johnson became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University;
- Vaughan became the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at NASA; and
- Jackson became the first African-American female engineer at NASA.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, it is an inspiring story of “hidden figures” finally being publicly recognized for their amazing contributions and talents and intelligence.
These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.
For more information on the real-life “hidden figures,” please read this insightful and informative NPR article and interview on ‘Hidden Figures’: How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon.
First impressions of the film? It is excellent on all fronts; the film does justice to the legacies of the real-life women it’s based on. Highly recommended! It is also a very well-structured film, although some dates were switched around and characters merged to simplify the story and increase the drama. You can read more about the historical accuracy here and additional trivia here on IMDb.com. The film is also Oscar-nominated for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Hidden Figures has also become the highest-grossing film thus far of the Best Picture nominees.
There is a pivotal library scene, clocking in around 2/3 of the way through the film, if I am remembering correctly. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) visits the local public library to look at computer programming books in the library’s “white” section because what she’s looking for isn’t available in the library’s “colored” section. A reel librarian (Rhoda Griffis as “White Librarian,” how the character is listed in the credits) tells her she doesn’t “want any trouble” and has Vaughan thrown out of the library. When Vaughan and her two boys are back on the bus, she pulls out a library book out from underneath her coat, a book on the Fortran programming language. Her sons are aghast — and I, too, let out an audible gasp in the movie theater! — but Vaughan’s defiant reaction is, “I pay my taxes for this library just like everybody else!“
Here’s how a review on the “Library” Books blog sums up the importance of this scene and what it sets in motion:
She [Vaughan] uses the book to secretly learn to program the new room-sized IBM mainframe computer that has recently arrived at NASA that will surely put her and many of her denizens out of a job. By learning the computer language she not changes her own destiny, but that of dozens of other women, both black and white, who work for the space program. This episode is one of many in the film that reminds us that what is legal is not necessarily right, and what is illegal is not necessarily wrong. Powerful lessons that are still relevant today.
Here’s another trailer for the film that includes a peek at the library scene at 1:45 minutes into the trailer:
While Vaughan visited the public library to seek out more up-to-date materials, it is another book — this time, an older book — that provides the solution to another pivotal plot point. When Katherine Johnson is stuck in figuring out a key mathematical conversion to help bring a rocket back down safely, she is inspired to use “old math” for the solution. So she goes straight to the “Colored Computers” area, where there is a bookcase filled with older, hand-me-down books — and finds exactly what she needs! What is old is new again.
I will need to rewatch the movie in order to delve deeper into the library scene and the role that books and research play in the film, but it’s pretty obvious to me that the “White Librarian” character serves the role of Information Provider. She is there not to provide information to any characters, but rather to reflect the societal rules that were in place to unjustly segregate citizens. Her reel librarian character echoes the “That’s just the way things are” barriers of the time period, barriers that were starting to crack, brick by brick and book by book.
Have you seen Hidden Figures? What are your thoughts on the film and/or its library scene? Please leave a comment and share!
- “Fortran” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- “Hidden Figures” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- Hidden Figures. Dir. Theodore Melfi. Perf. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.
- “‘Hidden Figures’: How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon.” The Week’s Best Stories from NPR Books, NPR.com, 25 Sept. 2016.
- “Trivia.” Hidden Figures (2016), Internet Movie Databas.
- YearofBooks. “Hidden Figures – the Movie.” ‘Library’ Books, 15 Jan. 2017.