Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African American women working at NASA during the height of the space race between the United States and Russia. The year is 1961, and while the country is united in a common goal to send a man to the moon, there is racial tension within NASA’s gates and civil unrest outside them. The three women who propel the movie, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, have both brilliant minds and firecracker spirits. Given the time period, they are considered “lucky” to work as computers (mathematicians) at such a respected government agency, but their experiences at NASA reveal that while technology is advancing at lightning speed in 1961, social progress is often excruciatingly slow.
I believe that every person has a valuable story, a unique life experience that unlocks the door to lessons that we may not have learned on our own, so I expected to appreciate this movie. What I did not expect was that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy would become my friends, that they would kick up their feet and make themselves at home in my head. I didn’t expect that their voices would continue speaking to me long after the movie had ended, that they would unpack their suitcases and stay.
I did not expect this, but I don’t mind that they did.
Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from this movie, but PLEASE go and see it for yourself! You can thank me for the recommendation later!
*CAUTION: Spoilers ahead!*
- Do not allow ANYONE to diminish your value.
Over and over and over again, the main characters in the movie are treated as second-class citizens because they are female and black at a time when both are considered inferior. Even though Katherine’s ability to calculate complex mathematical equations is exceptional, she is repeatedly underestimated, and when her colleagues begin to recognize her extraordinary talent, she is still resented by men and women alike. Likewise, Dorothy is not appreciated for her leadership, and Mary is discouraged from pursuing graduate classes in engineering despite both women being highly qualified.
But these ladies know that their value is not determined by what other people say or do or think. They have a strong faith. They have an impenetrable self-respect. They have the love of their families. And they have each other.
This is what gives Katherine the spunk to challenge the sexist attitude of the man she eventually marries and the courage to invite herself into highly classified meetings at NASA without proper clearance.
Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy know their value. They do not allow anyone to dim their light, and neither should you. Keep shining.
- You can be the first.
In one of the most compelling scenes in the movie, Mary Jackson petitions the court to allow her to attend graduate classes at night at a segregated high school. This is her only option if she wants to become a NASA engineer. In her plea, Mary reminds the judge of the “importance of being first,” in this case being the first to challenge social norms. She asks him, “Out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter a hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?”
Being first matters.
But the movie also reveals that being first isn’t easy. In Mary’s case, being first means going to court. It means researching and pleading her case. It means risking rejection and abuse. Even when Mary is victorious and is granted permission to attend, being first means being unwelcome. It means proving herself every single step along the way.
Even so, Mary shows us that there is something rewarding about winning an honorable and hard-fought battle. And if you are the first to do something worth doing, you can rest assured that others won’t be far behind.
But they will never be first.
Because you were.
- If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Even though I was absorbed in the struggles of Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy, I couldn’t take my eyes off the white people on the screen. I know that the actual events took place in 1961. I know that social norms were very different at that time. I know, on an academic level, about segregation and discrimination. But I couldn’t stop watching the behavior of so many white characters and thinking, “How could you do that?”
How could you make Katherine use a separate coffee pot in the office?
How could you intentionally prevent her from having the information she needs to do her job?
How could you deny her recognition and shut the door in her face when she is a critical part of your team?
How could you?
On the way home from the movie, my sons asked some difficult questions. What would we have been like, as people, if we had been raised at that time, in that place, and indoctrinated with those ideas of right and wrong? The truth is that I don’t know.
But there are white people in the movie who stand out as exceptionally bright lights. The brightest of those is John Glenn, who does not hesitate to greet all of the NASA employees, including the black women who have been sent to the side, with a handshake and a warm smile. He is portrayed as exuberant, kind, respectful – and eager to acknowledge Katherine’s exceptional talent. Another bright light is Karl Zielinski, a mission specialist who encourages Mary to pursue a career in engineering when she sees that as an impossible goal.
Our actions influence people. When we turn our heads and ignore the mistreatment of others, we are supporting that mistreatment, and we are encouraging other people to support it, too. And when we choose to be a brighter light and chart a different course, like Glenn and Zielinski, our behavior is influential, as well.
It’s not a matter of whether we do or don’t want to influence others – because that is not our choice. The choice is what kind of influence we will have.
- ASK FOR IT.
You are never, ever, ever going to get something that you don’t ask for, even if you deserve it. It’s not going to happen if you don’t ask. It just isn’t.
This idea is a recurring message throughout the film. As Hidden Figures progresses, we see all three ladies ask (and work very hard) for what they want. Katherine asks for more data, more access, and more respect. Dorothy asks for a promotion. Mary asks for the right to her education. And even though they do not get what they ask for right away, they do eventually get all of those things in one way or another.
Asking does not guarantee that you will get exactly what you want when you want it.
But not asking does guarantee that you won’t.
- Protocol is important. Until it isn’t.
“Protocol” is a key word in the vernacular of NASA in 1961. There is a strictly defined way to do almost everything, and, when there isn’t, the uncertainty sends the people who work there into a bit of a panic. There is a sense that the same organization that is on the forefront of scientific advancement is so entrenched in tradition and bureaucracy that it can’t see the forest for the trees in terms of social progress.
In one tense conversation, Katherine’s colleague Paul Stafford, who is offended that Katherine has been asked to double check his work, prevents her from attending a meeting by saying, “There is no protocol for women attending.”
Katherine quickly replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling the earth either, Sir.”
There is an interesting paradox in the movie between the very precise calculations that are necessary to ensure the astronauts’ safety and the flexibility that is also required to allow for scientific – and social – growth.
Rules are important, but rigidity is dangerous, and this applies to so many aspects of life.
- “You are the boss. You just have to act like one.”
When Katherine seeks permission to attend top-secret meetings so that she will have immediate access to the data that is critical to her job, she looks to her boss, Al Harrison, to override Paul Stafford, the head engineer, who wants to keep her out.
“Within these walls, who makes the rules?” Harrison asks.
“You, Sir,” Katherine answers. “You are the boss. You just have to act like one. Sir.”
With that, Harrison decides to break protocol, and Katherine joins the men at the table.
Katherine’s quick wit reminds us that we often underestimate our own power to change things that aren’t working. We may not be the Space Task Group director at NASA, like Harrison, but we are the bosses of a lot of things in our lives.
We just have to act like it.
- Open your eyes to the challenges of others.
Throughout the movie, Katherine maintains her composure despite difficult situations that would send most of us into a fit of rage today. But when she is scolded by Harrison for taking too many breaks after running a half mile in high heels in the middle of a rainstorm to get to the colored restroom, she finally loses her cool. Frustrated and soaking wet, she confronts Harrison in front of the entire office, asserting that she is tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.
This leads Harrison to bust up the signs assigning NASA bathrooms to one race or the other, and in a defining moment as the team works on their space mission he declares, “We all get there together, or we don’t get there at all.”
Harrison is portrayed as more open minded and empathetic than many other NASA supervisors, but the reality is that he did not “see” Katherine’s struggle until that struggle threatened to impact the success of the Friendship 7 mission, thus jeopardizing his own success and reputation. Only then did Katherine’s plight become real to him, and then he became her ally and maybe even her friend.
But that does not negate the fact that she had been taking long breaks for a long time, and anyone with just a bit of common sense could have figured out that running across the campus to the colored bathroom was a ridiculous haul and a waste of her time, besides the fact that it was completely unfair and demoralizing. But no one expressed concern. Because it wasn’t their problem.
There are people all around us facing challenges that we choose not to see.
What would happen if we all started seeing them?
- Do what you love.
Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy tolerate a significant amount of disrespect just to do their jobs. In the film, they choose to work in a field where women, particularly black women, are not really welcome. They could probably pursue work in a less hostile environment, but they don’t.
The reason these women pursue these careers is because they have a passion that I will never understand – a passion for MATH.
And it’s okay. I don’t need to understand it.
Because Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy inspire us to find our own passions, to find our own hidden gifts, and to pursue those with a vigor that is intensified, not diminished, by obstacles.
- Don’t lose your courage. Don’t lose your kindness. Don’t lose your hope.
At the end of the movie, the audience in our theater burst into applause. Typically, we applaud for people who are standing in front of us, people who can see and hear that recognition. But in the movie theater, we clapped for people who would never know, the real Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy, and all of the other people whose astounding resilience has changed life for us all. We applauded for the people who are more courageous and more daring than the rest of us.
And we clapped for the people who are still striving to reach what seem like impossible goals.
Hidden Figures shows us that people can and will continue to achieve the impossible.
Now we are watching to see who will be first.
*Hidden Figures was released by 20th Century Fox and is based on true events. The book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly was the inspiration for the film.