Hidden Figures (2016)
January 7, 2017 4:53 AM - Subscribe

A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program's first successful space missions.
posted by noneuclidean (38 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Saw this last night and thought it was absolutely fantastic. My wife and I both have a background in mathematics, and my wife has a research interest in women in mathematics, so we were both excited to see this. Although I thought most of the math-specific parts were glossed over/unrealistic, I thought the move did a really great job highlighting the efforts of women whose work went unrecognized for so, so, long. It was also a much more accessible movie about math and mathematicians than recent examples like Proof or A Beautiful Mind, which will hopefully get some more young women interested in pursuing math.

More Katherine Johnson on the blue here and here. Also, a really fantastic post about other women mathematicians who worked at JPL here.
posted by noneuclidean at 5:21 AM on January 7 [9 favorites]


Mr Mitten has been at the big math conference this week, and the author of the book this is based on gave a talk -- which had to be moved to a bigger venue, and even then was standing room only. He said it's the best turnout he's ever seen for any math event, and the excitement in the room was palpable.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:20 AM on January 7 [4 favorites]


I appreciated that no one did this alone: each had visibly loving and supportive family and friends. My daughter specifically admired Dorothy’s forethought in being steps ahead of everyone else in planning the future of her computing team in the advent of IBM computers at NASA. There was also a very modest degree of white woman-to-black woman support. I know this is a contentious topic in feminist history and I may be seeing what is not intended, but (1) Vivian could have told Mary of the promotion denial without telling her the reason or where qualifying classes were being held and (2) Ruth is the only team member to acknowledge Katherine’s firing, though I don’t think she acknowledges Katherine’s contributions.
posted by beaning at 1:49 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]


Saw this movie yesterday with my niece who is in Engineering school. We loved it! She probably appreciated the astounding mathematical accomplishments of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary more than I did -- but I appreciated the historical context in a way she never could. What pure joy to sit in a theatre and watch three - THREE - smart, compassionate, strong, attractive, funny, determined women of color get.shit.done. In a theatre that was SOLD OUT every showing 2 days running. So, so, very sweet.
posted by pjsky at 7:52 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]


The movie was really really fascinating. I was disappointed to learn that some of the key elements of the movie were total fiction (Dorothy Vaughan had already been a senior manager at NASA for 13 years by the time John Glenn flew), while other things that seemed like fiction in the movie actually happened (John Glenn actually personally asked for Katherine Johnson to verify all the math for the trip). But it's definitely worth watching, and now I have to read the book to find out what actually happened.
posted by miyabo at 9:42 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


As a black, female, engineer, it is really weird to see a historical movie that is so directly tied to my interests.

I have to admit to being a little disappointed that I had never even heard of any of these women until I started hearing the buzz about Janelle Monae's casting -- you'd think that some teacher might have have thought to mention their stories to the girl who really did want to go work for NASA someday. I'll go ahead and chalk it up to Canadian math/comp-sci teachers not knowing their NASA history combined with being in middle school during NASA's post-Challenger dark period.

Anyways...yay! I loved how John Glenn (who would normally be the star of a movie like this) was just a kind of cardboard-cutout/Ken Doll figure. My truthiness radar went up when they showed him calling for Katherine personally (so I really appreciate knowing that that was true, miyabo).

I knew that this movie was going to be important for the smart ladies I know to watch but I've already talked it up to multiple white male engineers at work this morning b/c dammit they need to be excited to see this kind of thing too.

It wasn't perfect, I could nitpick some of the pacing/plotting. I'm sure people who know more about the civil rights era could point out inaccuracies. People in the theater applauded Harrison grandstanding about taking down the Colored Ladies Room sign but not Katherine's fuck-your-pearls speech... etc. But for now, I'm not going to dwell on that stuff and just be happy that this movie got made.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:42 AM on January 9 [10 favorites]


I knew I would enjoy this movie, and I did!

Did anyone else watching this see the emphasis on Katherine's difficulties getting to a restroom she was allowed to use, and infer that filmmakers intend for the viewer to carry this lesson over when considering current transphobic legislation around public restrooms? I recognize that I might be insensitive here in suggesting the analogy, and would of course welcome correction...
posted by brainwane at 9:07 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Movies showing triumphs in the space program usually make me choke up (or full on cry) watching filmic depictions of people accomplishing these incredible things, so I was preparing myself to lose it during the late scenes of the space flights...I did like those scenes, but the only times I cried were 1) Katherine finally venting her frustrations to Harrison and the whole team after running in from the rain, and 2) the marriage proposal scene.

I'm so happy to hear that John Glenn specifically asking for Katherine's double-check on the math for his reentry was real, because that stood out to me as the biggest potential stretch of the truth for dramatic purposes, but if it really happened it's just wonderful.
posted by doctornecessiter at 9:31 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Did anyone else watching this see the emphasis on Katherine's difficulties getting to a restroom she was allowed to use, and infer that filmmakers intend for the viewer to carry this lesson over when considering current transphobic legislation around public restrooms?

No. But that doesn't mean that people shouldn't.

For one thing, I don't think that the analogy is completely apt. For another, I didn't really see anything else in the movie that commented on current injustices (I mean, it's not like we've even solved racism or sexism in STEM yet). And besides the "good men support their women's career goals" the movie doesn't really attempt to challenge cishet nuclear family norms in any way (everybody was straight and christian, I'm not going to complain about seeing more Mahershala Ali, but I'm not convinced his character was necessary to tell Johnson's story, etc.).

So I wouldn't give them the benefit of assuming that this is something that even crossed the filmmaker's minds.

But yeah, even if it wasn't intentional, the fact is that being denied a thing as basic as a restroom you can safely use during your workday is demeaning. It shouldn't have happened then and it shouldn't be happening now.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:10 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


god, I loved this movie. The costuming alone would put it in my top 5 for the year, and then it was smart and relevant and true on top of that. There were moments that didn't quite work-- giving Costner a hero moment with the restroom sign felt a bit heavy-handed, a little too much 'see????? white people fought racism too!!!!!' when this was not the movie for that.

But I actually thought the subplot with Kirsten Dunst's character was handled really well. She came across very clearly, to me, as someone who does not consider herself racist despite enforcing racist norms and policies every step of the way. When she tells Mary why her application was denied, her explanation of why read as justification-- 'well, everyone has to follow the same rules; it's not MY fault those rules are impossible for you to follow.'

She does unbend once there's something in it for her, though. And the movie uses the perfect, subtle signifier for the change-- after calling Dorothy Vaughan by her first name all movie, she finally grants her the dignity of 'Mrs. Vaughan' at the end.

Also, did anyone notice that the only fully integrated crowd scenes, all movie long, are the people watching/listening to John Glenn's launch? Every other scene is either entirely segregated, one black person surrounded by white people, or one white person surrounded by black people.

And on a very silly note, I appreciate whoever decided to put John Glenn in a bow tie so we could tell him apart from every other dude with the same haircut and a skinny tie.
posted by nonasuch at 10:36 AM on January 9 [14 favorites]


Mr Mitten has been at the big math conference this week, and the author of the book this is based on gave a talk -- which had to be moved to a bigger venue, and even then was standing room only. He said it's the best turnout he's ever seen for any math event, and the excitement in the room was palpable.

posted by LobsterMitten at 8:20 AM on January 7 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


I'm really glad to hear this anecdote. My kid goes to a very academic STEM school, and while I tried to get other families interested in seeing this movie with us, very few showed interest. A reminder how in some respects this field is getting worse not better.
posted by latkes at 12:41 PM on January 9


The kid and I took a break from studying for her algebra exam to see this movie last night. She was all in the moment young Katherine picked up the chalk and started factoring, and very pleased to hear that John Glenn really did ask specifically for Katherine to check the math. Two thumbs up from a couple of female math nerds. The book is also excellent.
posted by Flannery Culp at 12:44 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


Overall I am really happy this movie exists. I had only one real peeve: Mr Costner seems to revel in playing the white savior and his hammer-wielding desegregation of NASA was straight up stupid and also super problematic in who it centered. Having said that, overall competent if well-trod piece. Really glad for a generation of kids to grow up watching this. Especially weird timing of the cold war rehash given current events! I have a hard time understanding what a high school aged kid makes of the Kennedy era stuff in this movie.

Favorite ideological element of this movie: Octavia Spencer's character's focus on bringing up all her coworkers with her. Her real life analog was actually NACA's first black manager in 1948! Cool!
posted by latkes at 12:45 PM on January 9


I didn't take Dorothy Vaughn's story as more fictionalized than the rest, just a timeline compression. But it does show a) really amazing work on the part of Dorothy Vaughn to excel in the segregated environment and b) something progressive about NASA that they were an institution where they were at least susceptible to efforts by incoming black and female staff and external social change movements. I guess that's what Costner's (totally fictionalized) character was meant to represent - the pragmatic willingness to defy racist norms, even if many of these women were viewed as what, glorified secretaries in some sense?

I'd like to learn more about Mary Jackson in particular. It seems her court battle and subsequent hiring as an engineer in the 50s is pretty accurate.
posted by latkes at 12:55 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


the pragmatic willingness to defy racist norms, even if many of these women were viewed as what, glorified secretaries in some sense?

Harrison (and Jackson's mentor) show two different examples of ways that the privileged can help the oppressed. They are both (relatively) privileged white dudes who have succeeded because of, and work to perpetuate, the meritocracy.

In the case of Jackson's mentor (I wish this relationship was explored more), it's clear that he knows her and respects her as a potential peer. He acknowledges her oppression, but while he's (relatively) powerless to do much about it, he does push her.

Harrison though, is of the I Don't See Color variety. He recognizes Katherine's brilliance, but doesn't see how hard she's working just to stay afloat. He gets props for waking up a little when led by the nose, but he doesn't do much to address Sheldon*'s undermining. And while he claims to be "the boss," he is still somehow powerless to help Katherine when the mainframe puts her out of a job.

*real talk: The Big Bang Theory is horrible, but Sheldon is a fun character to watch in tiny doses. I earned some respect for Jim Parsons as an actor here -- obviously Jim Parsons Plays Engineer is always going to have a hint of Sheldon behind it, but I thought he did a good job of filling out a completely different character.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:56 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I thought it was funny to learn that Mary Jackson's real-life mentor was named Kazimierz Czarnecki but they Anglisized him to Karl Zielinski in the movie.

This is cool: NASA actually has a website tying in to the book and movie. Here's the article about Mary Jackson..
posted by latkes at 3:27 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


My daughter is at an all-girls' STEM school and they are going to a screening of the movie tomorrow. In preparation, they were all assigned to read the book over the winter break; at my daughter's request, spouse and I have been reading the book to her and it has been eye-opening for all of us. She has really enjoyed it and I'll be interested to hear her reaction to the movie. If you enjoyed the movie, read the book as well; we are about 2/3 of the way through the book and Sputnik has just launched - most of the book is set in the 1940s and early 50s, so you learn a ton about that era.
posted by mogget at 3:38 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I adored almost everything about this, except for... Kevin Costner having to deliver the terrible "At NASA we all pee the same color!" line (though sadly for Kevin Costner, it's far from the worst line he's ever had to deliver in a film) and the odd pacing around John Glenn's orbit. Obviously he survived and while obviously everyone working for NASA was terrified and in doubt, somehow I felt like we didn't get enough emotion from the NASA side (or especially Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy) in that moment. We see Dorothy being powerless and listening along, and Katherin in the room, but I still felt unfulfilled somehow.

Count me as someone else surprised and delighted to learn that Glenn asking for Katherine's calculations was true!

I loved the fashion and wish I could wear dresses like that, but man am I so, so thankful that as a woman I am no longer expected to wear heels everywhere.
posted by TwoStride at 3:45 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


So, MeFi - is this acceptable for my 4th-grader?

(We've done a lot of movies, including The Force Awakens and Rogue One - which was maybe too grim in retrospect - but the only one that's disturbed him is Kubo and the Two Strings. I'm guessing this is not scary in that way - but is it accessible to a 9 year old?)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:41 PM on January 10


The review tagline at the NY Times says "Rated PG. Your children should see this."
posted by mogget at 1:14 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The main characters are only in any kind of peril once*, at the very beginning, and it's much more by implication (3 black women broken down on the side of the road in Virginia, white male police office pulls up, [spoiler alert] it turns out fine). There is at least one protest scene that involves scary dogs (but it is short and the dogs don't actually engage).

There is one extended scene with an astronaut in peril, but if your 9 year old knows his NASA history, he will know that that astronaut will turn out just fine.

*ok, there is another time, involving a shoe and a countdown...again it turns out fine.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:18 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I was there with a 3rd grader. She was somewhat confused in parts and had a lot of questions after, but that's a good thing. It is a great conversation starter for talking to kids about the history of integration struggles, gender, science, math, the space program, etc.
posted by latkes at 2:10 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


And on a very silly note, I appreciate whoever decided to put John Glenn in a bow tie so we could tell him apart from every other dude with the same haircut and a skinny tie.

If you Google "John Gleen bow tie" you'll find a lot of photos of him wearing them during the movie's time period.

The film was really enjoyable, a huge crowd pleaser in all the right ways. Yeah, it fudged with the history on some times, but got the important details right, i.e. Kathy was smart as hell and Glenn asked her to double check the computer.

Loved that it covered three characters, not just one. Interesting narrative choice that could have gone wrong, but it worked really well here. Also appreciate that a lot the racism didn't magically disappear. Stafford was still and ass, but an accepting one and Kirsten Dunst's character came around ok, while obviously still being prejudiced. Change takes a while.

Costner's character smashing the colored sign worked well for me. Nobody does anything alone and as much as it may suck to say it, it does take a member of the majority to recognize the humanity of the minority.

Pity that John Glenn testified against women being allowed in to be astronauts. He later expressed regret for that, but...yeah.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:56 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I thought it did very well on the things that Hollywood does well and ok on some of the things that Hollywood does badly; the rockets, capsules and spacesuits looked *great*, the technical stuff was pretty good for the most part, but the most maths intensive scenes turned into gobbledegook. It felt like they'd taken one too many simplification passes through the script there (for my taste at least), so now I'm reading the book to find out what Katherine Johnson actually did.

I guess it was probably necessary to the production that they not show any of the real people they were portraying as openly racist, but I thought the movie made good use of that constraint to show how some of the "racism without racists" thing works.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 3:21 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I wanted to see the movie last weekend and it was sold out in two theaters that I tried. I got in this weekend at 4 but I'd say the theater was 5/6 full and the crowd applauded at the end. I would love if this was a giant hit.

The ladies were awesome. You don't see Taraji as a nerdgirl much these days. Likewise I looooove Janelle Monae as a singer, but her wearing dresses and colors instead of her usual black and white tuxes was a shock at first. Also loved their wardrobes. And of course, their personalities in this one. Katherine's rants and takedowns, Dorothy's strategic library book stealing and training everyone to program, Mary's sass and court scene argument. Great stuff.

Kirsten Dunst's character is the most unattractive, dead-eyed, quietly miserable woman I've ever seen her play. I strongly suspect that character drinks or pops pills when she gets home, she's so flat. Wow.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:32 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Just came back from seeing this and really enjoyed it. I agree there were some pacing issues, but the three leads were just so great - I could have watched them together on screen for days.

My theater was full and the (diverse) audience clapped 5 or 6 times during the movie, but probably loudest at the pearls outburst. That was well-deserved.

I thought the movie did a really good job of showing how white privilege works. None of the white people noticed anything wrong until it was pointed out to them by one of the black women. And then you get a whole range of reactions that felt very real, and were very dependent on the role and circumstances of the white person: Kirsten Dunst was defensive, Kevin Costner was pragmatic (and yeah, kinda showboaty - it was a cinematic moment), Jim Parsons was dismissive. And even when white people do the right thing in this movie, they're not the heroes. I can't think of another movie I've seen that did such a good job exploring white privilege - and it managed to do that while also not taking the focus off the black women who are the real heroes of the story.

Similarly, I thought it did a really good job of showing how these women effectively navigated a system set up to keep them from succeeding - how they chose their battles, how they used different strategies at different moments, how they turned white people into allies or went around them when they couldn't.
posted by lunasol at 10:50 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Dunst's character felt like an extension of the character she played in Mona Lisa Smile.

People in the theater applauded Harrison grandstanding about taking down the Colored Ladies Room sign but not Katherine's fuck-your-pearls speech... etc.


The exact opposite happened in my theater. As soon as Katherine finished her speech, one of the women in the back of the theater shouted "you tell 'em girl!"
posted by INFJ at 9:25 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


More on the costuming from designer Renee Erlich Kalfus, whose work on the film has been nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Film.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 8:22 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I actually thought that Costner's "We all pee the same color!" came across as a much-needed tension-lifting, mood-puncturing punchline. The bit with him smashing the hell out of the sign was veering into being a little over-the-top stagy otherwise.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:36 PM on January 17


History vs. Hollywood has a good article about the fictional inventions in the film, including a video interview with Katherine Johnson at the bottom of the page. Odd that she says she never really felt the segregation as an issue while she was working there.

It was a great mainstream movie, nicely weaving the three stories together with smaller arcs for lots of supporting characters. I thought the direction, pacing, music and acting were all beautifully done. Throw in the importance of the subject and you have what should easily win the Best Picture Oscar (it won't because Hollywood will masturbate itself with the just-ok La La Land, but it should).

Loved that the mostly white crowd I saw it with included a lot of 8-12- year-old children with their parents.
posted by mediareport at 8:33 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Just saw this yesterday, loved it. I agree it should be seen by kids - especially girls. Not just for the women can be engineers angle, but as great role models for standing up for yourself with grace.

I also really liked the view into their lives outside of NASA.
posted by yoga at 3:57 PM on February 5


Odd that [johnson] says she never really felt the segregation as an issue while she was working there.

Or, someone who may have had "don't make trouble with the status quo" so drilled into her as a young child that she's almost instinctively downplaying it.

Throw in the importance of the subject and you have what should easily win the Best Picture Oscar (it won't because Hollywood will masturbate itself with the just-ok La La Land, but it should).

I'm hoping that there's enough lingering grumbling over the "Oscars so white" stuff and over Selma getting snubbed that it makes things more of a horse race.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:34 PM on February 5


As soon as Katherine finished her speech, one of the women in the back of the theater shouted "you tell 'em girl!"

Can I just say, (having only today seen this movie) that I wish I'd gone earlier and wish I'd seen it in a theater with a lot of black women reacting like that? Cuz there are SO many moments that are just marvelous, and those are always more fun with a crowd that's cheering along. (My late afternoon theater had, like, 6 people in it. All white as far as I noticed. )

Like, the bathroom scene where Kirsten Dunst says "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against you all." And Dorothy replies "I'm sure you believe that." Wow! The SHADE of it. So fantastic. I would have enjoyed feeling a bigger crowd reaction to that.

I thought the movie did a really good job of showing how white privilege works. None of the white people noticed anything wrong until it was pointed out to them by one of the black women.

Yes. And they're all so sure they're working in a true meritocracy, that they're valuing the contributions of their black workers, but totally blind to the system that's created the inequalities and indignities.

(Although... the bathroom thing. I haven't read the book, so I dunno. I can certainly believe there was a time when it was true, but I feel like that situation can't have lasted quite as long as it did in the movie? I'm assuming the screenplay was working it for metaphoric effect - because the payoff when the white guy has to make the same run to fetch Katherine for new calculations, and then they make the same run back together - that was a nice touch.)
posted by dnash at 5:45 PM on February 24


Or, someone who may have had "don't make trouble with the status quo" so drilled into her as a young child that she's almost instinctively downplaying it.

Maybe we should take the person who lived the reality at their word. If you've seen any interviews with her, it's clear that her mind is still sharp and she's not a timid soul.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:43 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


A good Twitter thread about the book vs the movie here. It talks about the difference between a focus on institutional vs personal prejudice.
posted by latkes at 7:56 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Well said, Brandon - my apologies.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:53 PM on February 24


Thank you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:45 AM on February 26


I saw this last night and enjoyed it a lot, although as someone with no background in science or math, it made me feel like a lightweight and a dimbulb.

The costuming and set design was fantastic. I loved all those shots of Katherine Johnson in her vividly coloured outfits among all those dorks in white shirts, skinny black ties, and crew cuts. How could they not look at her and think, "Man, what a sight for sore eyes!"
posted by orange swan at 12:03 PM on August 21 [2 favorites]


« Older Movie: House of Games...   |  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Who is Jo... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments