Hidden Figures and Spectacular Lessons

Hidden Figures and Spectacular Lessons

“Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them.”

—Ruta Sepetys

I think this quote is appropriate for this article, which leans heavily on the historical. The quote went on to say we can achieve unity by learning from history. In a world where divisions seem to be growing, with more persons encapsulating themselves in camps that see others as unrelatable enemies, learning about some events in the past may spur us, if we are true to ourselves, to develop empathy, see things through others’ lenses, and build better relationships. 

I recently watched the movie, Hidden Figures. Saying the movie kept me glued would be some sort of understatement. Maybe it’s because I admire the world of engineering, or my skin looks a bit black, or the actors were great in entering their characters, or the storyline was interesting, or because I was watching with a friend, or maybe it’s a combination of all these reasons. Whichever is the reason, I finished that movie with a pledge to write about some lessons learned.

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Lesson 1: You’ve got to reach out for what you want

Dorothy had to make her case to be made a supervisor; a post she duly deserved. Mary had to make her case to become NASA’s first female black engineer; a dream for which she had to approach the courts and appeal to the judge’s sentiment to make history. Katherine needed more information about the space programme in order to be more effective at her job, so she actively made her point and became the first woman to sit in a briefing that “had no arrangements for women” talk less of a black woman. For Jim, despite an initial hiccup, he knew he wanted Katherine’s heart and he played his cards well, even getting her kids and mother to join his camp. He did his homework so well that she could easily have proposed marriage to herself on his behalf. These characters demonstrated a key point: If you want something, make a concerted move for it. As Mary said, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line”, but that did not discourage her nor the others from making a push for what they wanted.

Lesson 2: Segregation is not just a word

Katherine’s outburst after getting soaked in rain gives a lucid overview of the human effects of segregation.

“There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”

Another vivid illustration was Dorothy and her kids being asked to leave the “white section” of the library despite the “colored section” being understocked. Despite these black ladies being smarter than several of the white guys at NASA, the kinds of jobs they were permitted to do showed the stupidity of the segregation policy. I think that’s enough said.

Lesson 3: Make a difference where you can

When Mr Harrison learned of the discrimination faced by Katherine and other black women, his action was beyond commendable. “Here at NASA we all pee the same colour” set the stage for reduced discrimination, especially regarding the use of toilet facilities. He further ended the use of separate coffee kettles. While some persons at NASA may have been powerless about doing anything about the segregation policy, he had the power to make a change and he used that power. That’s a great lesson!

Lesson 4: Absolute trust in computers is a No-No

Just before the launch of John Glenn’s space mission, Harrison noticed the IBM computer had turned out different sets of coordinates on consecutive days. John was unwilling to proceed except a trusted human, Katherine, verified the computer’s output. Even today, in numerically critical tasks such as finite element analysis where computers are kings, humans do validation and verification to prevent blind trust in computers. Computers are excellent aids, but just as humans can make mistakes, computers are not error-proof.

Lesson 5: Human behaviour is quite nuanced

See Lead Engineer Stafford’s behaviour when Katherine was assigned to verify his and other engineers’ calculations. Some of the heat she received from him was simply because he could not understand why a black woman would be asked to check the maths of some of NASA’s brightest minds. Similarly, Mrs Dunst despite “probably believing” she had no personal issues with the smart black ladies, did all she could to ensure they knew their place. This worsened when Glenn picked out the black ladies in a crowd of cheerers to greet them. Humans behave in ways that are usually illogical and irrational but can be somewhat understood from the angle of emotions.

Lesson 6: You sometimes have to fight for recognition

Dorothy had to fight to be made a supervisor. Despite doing the work of a supervisor, the controllers at NASA were okay with leaving her with neither the title nor the pay of a supervisor. Similarly, Mary had to fight to be recognised as being worthy of the engineer’s title. Although not bandied much, Katherine’s fight to have her name on reports written by her is a fight common in many corporate environments where bosses take the glory for their team members’ work. By the end of the movie, she achieved the recognition she deserved and could now add her name alongside Stafford’s on her reports.

Lesson 7: Think future-proof

When Dorothy realised the IBM computer would throw the black ladies out of NASA’s computing group, she made a move to learn FORTRAN, even if that meant collecting (not stealing!) a book from a library. She also taught her ladies how to code, in a selfless act that ensured job security for them all. In today’s world where robots are the new threat, thinking ahead to develop skills that would be in demand in future is a sure way to stay ahead of the curve.

Final thoughts

Overall, the movie was amazing. Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford made me feel his casting was deliberate. Since Jim is known as the hyper-smart Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, casting him as the lead engineer in a recognition struggle with a smart black woman may have been intended to subtly pass a message. If you have not watched Hidden Figures, I would advise you to watch it ASAP. Watching it may let you empathise with America’s blacks and why they seem so angry with whites. Personally, I don’t think the anger would end in this generation. Maybe as people gradually come to terms with the past and a generation arises that has no direct contact with segregation, peace would come.

Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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  1. I’ve just noticed some historical inaccuracies (see Wikipedia) in parts of the movie. That being said, these lessons remain!
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