Hidden theme of 'Hidden Figures': America's disappearing potential for unity

I saw Hidden Figures in a suburban theater surrounded by baby boomers, and many were openly weeping by the movie’s end.

That’s a bit strange, as the movie tilts upbeat and is engineered to be inspirational. Many younger viewers, in fact, are energized by it, much so that they’ve gone to the astonishing extreme of expressing an interest in mathematics, emboldened by the film’s true story of three black women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson -- whose math and science skills (and strength of character) allowed them to push past racism and rise through the ranks at NASA in the 1960s.

Older audiences, I think, are also blindsided by a memory of something they see disappearing from American life.

It’s there in the first scene, cannily crafted by director Ted Melfi as a miniature version of the movie as it will play out: the three women on their way to work, trying to fix a broken-down vehicle, confronted by a burly white cop who doesn’t like the way they answer questions and asks aloud whether  the women are showing disrespect.

He stops in the middle of this and looks up at the empty sky. There is a long pause. The women look up as well. Then the cop breaks the silence by talking about Sputnik, currently orbiting the Earth, and wondering whether it’s peering down on them as they speak. If you ladies work for NASA, he finally says, I’d better get you there pronto, so we can win this space race.

Off they go, siren blaring, a police escort all the way to work.

That’s the movie encapsulated: The women face discrimination,  they press on, and obstacles fall away as the scientists see that drawing the best and brightest from a diverse talent pool is the best way to win -- a vision of a profoundly imperfect America managing to find unity in the service of a shared cause.

I think that’s part of what hits older viewers so hard. They remember an America capable of cohesion. They’re thinking of it as they leave the theaters and spill into the streets of the current version -- an America of red bubbles and blue bubbles, bouncing relentlessly and angrily off each other. 

There’s another scene worth noting here. Pedestrians gathered in front of an appliance store, watching a dozen TVs all tuned to the same channel. That was the electronic media in the '60s -- three stations, one feed. But as a consequence, the nation's eye was fixed on the Mercury mission, our collective emotions/imaginations invested for a moment in the drama of an American astronaut straining to break through our atmosphere.

In Hidden Figures,  these missions are a symbol of a larger Kennedy-era aspiration -- to be better than we are, and to believe that it’s possible.

Today, the only math we seem to know is division. We seem to work as hard at disintegration as the women in Hidden Figures did at integration. And the movie, by the way, covers only a portion of their achievements. There is an entire second act to their careers, beyond the scope of the film, that you can find in the book Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (this is the second time I’ve plugged it, but it’s a really good read).

After getting John Glenn into space and men to the moon, Jackson and Vaughan became full-time advocates for gender equality at NASA, in the belief that helping all women helped black women and healed racial division in the bargain. It worked. They secured advancement for the next generation of women, which made for better science, a better NASA.

Johnson toured schools to talk up STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and continued to lead by example at work.  As Shetterly writes, she “applied equality to herself without insecurity and to others with the full expectation of reciprocity … a reflection of the America we want to be.”

The way these women displayed courage and tactical acumen in the face of obstacles -- versions of the income inequality, racism, and sexism  that still plague us today -- is instructive.

When Jackson complains about being denied access to additional education, Vaughan stops her  -- don’t complain, do something about it. So she did.  She went to court and won the right to take engineering classes at an all-white school.

These women were problem-solvers, no matter the equation. They calculated the variables and worked things out. Part of the reason their story went untold for so long was that the women deflected attention. They wanted the larger story to be about the program, the mission, the team.

Years after she retired, Vaughan was asked to participate in a class-action suit to recover the wages she should have been paid.

She refused.

“They paid me what they said they were going to pay me.”

As Shetterly notes, Vaughan measured her compensation in the careers of the scientists and programmers she nurtured and made possible.

Today’s America can learn something from these women, and it’s not math.