Honoring the Legacy of Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures and Black Women’s Historic Hidden Labor

Katherine Johnson, a pioneering black mathematician whose calculations ensured NASA’s astronauts safely set foot on the moon in 1969, died Monday at the age of 101.

“Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s Administrator said on Monday. “She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

Below is a review of the movie Hidden Figures, based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which celebrated the careers of black female mathematicians in NASA during the Space Race.

Katherine Johnson: Rest in power.

NOTE: This review contains spoilers!

In a pivotal scene of Hidden Figures, Dorothy Vaughan (brilliantly portrayed by Octavia Spencer) sneaks into the office space where the new IBM has been installed. With keen insight as one of the human “computers” at NASA, she understands how quickly her role—and that of her team of black women computers—will be replaced by this daunting object. Having already suffered the humiliation of being ejected from the “white” section of her local library in Virginia—and displaying eloquent rage when she warns the police officer throwing her out to not touch her sons while catching herself suddenly as she code-switches to polite dialogue lest she be manhandled and arrested—Dorothy puts to the test her newfound knowledge of Fortran, the early computer-programming language she must master and which she learned from the book she smuggled out of the library.

This “theft”—resulting from arcane Jim Crow laws in the early sixties when the story is set—proves worthwhile. Dorothy becomes the first at her job to successfully program the IBM machine, after which she speaks to the object: “Attagirl!”

This deliberate gendering of the computer as girl mirrors the ways that the women employed by NASA are often referred to as girls—regardless of their race, marital status or age. In a climactic scene before his impending launch, American astronaut and hero John Glenn (Glen Powers) famously requests the “smart girl”–Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson), who was 44 years old at the time—when he doubts the IBM’s calculations and needs a human to reassure him of the coordinates that will launch him into space as well as into history and return him back safely.

Few of us remember that computers used to be women mathematicians before machines replaced them. Hidden Figures, which could easily be called “hidden labor,” is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film narrows the scope of the story by focusing on Katherine Johnson; Dorothy Vaughan, who will become the first African American supervisor at NASA; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who will become the first American American female engineer. The film effortlessly weaves these three women’s stories into a singular story line of genius, solidarity and sisterhood.

This is quite the contrast to most Hollywood movies that focus on “white male genius”—think The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind—in which such intellect develops in social isolation and stands apart from a community of sustenance (unless he is supported by a woman, usually a wife).

This story could have easily focused solely on Katherine Johnson—the genius who, since girlhood, demonstrated her gift for numbers and complicated mathematical equations. The film opens with a scene from her childhood and follows her ensuing romance with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), and the postscript informs us that the couple is still very much alive. Mrs. Johnson herself was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. However, in the vein of feminist storytelling, Hidden Figures—directed by Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Allison Schroeder—reminds us that such genius does not exist in isolation.

Indeed, despite the indignities Katherine faces—from being expected to drink from a “colored” coffee pot at the office where she works as the sole woman of color to running for miles in high heels across the Langley Research Center to the only “colored restroom” at the complex (in the film’s literal running gag to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ catchy “Runnin'”)–she is nonetheless sustained by her friendships and community. Dorothy and Mary wait for her when she works long hours, her mother cooks her dinner while looking after her three daughters and Jim charmingly brings her soup after she develops a cold from running in the rain.

The film differs from Shetterly’s book in a few details. The real Katherine Johnson didn’t make those awkward bathroom break trips and simply used the white restroom closest to her desk, choosing to ignore the raised eyebrows of some of her white colleagues. In reality, it was Mary Jackson who suffered this indignity—but these cinematic changes are for the benefit of present-day audiences who are shown the consequences of legal segregation and gender-regulated dress codes in an effort to illustrate how systemic inequalities created barriers for the three heroines to overcome.

An eventual outburst by Katherine about this inequality leads to her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), dramatically tearing down the “colored” restroom sign. Meanwhile, Mary successfully petitions a Virginia court in order to attend a segregated school where she can pursue her education towards engineering. Dorothy masters the IBM rather than have it master her or replace her. (Better yet, when she is reassigned to a computer-programming position, she makes sure she moves with her entire team of “colored computers.”) And in homage to The Right Stuff, which shows our heroic astronauts on their way to conquer outer space, a similar scene depicts Dorothy and her team similarly marching forward, well-dressed and well-heeled on their way to conquer cyberspace. Their feat is just as triumphant if not more so, given the current computer revolution under which we are living.

The hidden history of women computer programmers–including African Americans–has found its way to the movies.

Few in the public would be aware that women were the ones pioneering this field. However, statistics from the National Science Foundation in 2014 indicated that women were dominant in this STEM field until 1984—when the personal computer industry began its ascension. Think of the memorable “1984” Apple commercial for what is now Apple that marked this turning point. Apart from the woman athlete featured in the ad who starts this “revolution,” the PC industry marketed their computers mostly to men and boys, perpetuating images of male computer nerds that managed to erase women’s early history.

In the midst of the misogynistic targeting of women online, the outrages of #Gamergate and even the hacking and “email” scandals that undermined the campaign of the first woman who came the closest to winning the U.S. presidency, Hidden Figures emerges into the public sphere at a time when we need to remember that this technological domain once belonged to women.

How often do we get to see a black woman in respectable dress, which nonetheless emphasizes her curves, as she writes on a chalkboard with her back to a room full of white men—confident that they are focused on her intellectual output rather than in the opportunity presented to ogle her body or outright dismiss her humanity? Representations matter, and Hidden Figures provides rarely glimpsed cinematic images of black female genius.

The film’s PG-rated family-friendly status already makes it a crossover hit for feminists and conservatives alike. The ultra-feminine costumes that pop off the screen recall the “politics of respectability” of Civil-Rights-era black folk, while the heteronormative family structure and romance remind us of the era’s gender rigidity despite the ways that Katherine, Dorothy and Mary surpassed the intellect expected of women and black women specifically. Indeed, depicting black women as loving mothers with supportive husbands and an extended community of well-wishers does much to reverse the common image of “dysfunctional” black couples, families, and neighborhoods. The film even illustrates the ways that black women’s femininity was often questioned when Dorothy’s marital status is erased by a younger white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who refers to her by her first name.

But above all, Hidden Figures rewrites the “genius” narrative.

Hidden Figures has debuted at the right moment—just before the preview of a new gold coin featuring Lady Liberty as a black woman, months after the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, nearly a year after Harriet Tubman was selected to front the $20 currency and at the conclusion of eight years of our nation’s first black president and first lady.

In a moment when too many Americans seem to want to “make America great again” by returning to the “better era” that the 1950s and 1960s supposedly represent, this film reminds them that it included black women—and that those women, whose intellectual achievements sent men to the moon and back and upended the space-age narrative of white male dominance, faced discrimination at every turn. Finally, the film’s re-visitation of cold-war competition with Russia and fears of surveillance mirrors current concerns.

This film reminds us to confront our troubled past and expand its narrative for a more complete and diverse representation of American history. It reminds us that no matter how divided our nation is on issues of race and gender, we can transcend our differences, share in our brilliance and unite in our endeavors toward a common goal.

As Al Harrison reminds his workers in one scene: “We either get there together or not at all.”


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.