Review: Hidden Figures Exposes Social Cost of Prejudice

hidden-figures-posterEconomists have long argued that prejudice exacts penalties and costs on people who discriminate. A powerful example of this effect is found front and center in the justifiably acclaimed movie Hidden Figures. The film depicts the struggles and eventual triumph of women serving as “computers” for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) in the early 1960s, when segregation still ruled in law and racial prejudice was the cultural norm, particularly the South. As the nation raced to put an American into orbit, NASA employed dozens of the nation’s top white engineers to play catch up with the Soviet Union. But did NASA really have the nation’s top minds?

The answer is transparently “no,” and that’s what makes Hidden Figures a compelling story and intriguing film. In fact, viewers may well be left bewildered that this story wasn’t told sooner. Fortunately, the film, which is based on the book of the same name, is as compelling as the underlying story, a tribute to director Theodore Melfi.

Political and cultural discrimination in Virginia, circa 1962, made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to advance professionally in white society, government, and industry. Their ability to even acquire skills was compromised by laws, as one sequence makes abundantly clear. African-American Section Head Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, The Help, Fruitvale Station, Insurgent) anticipates the potential of IBM mainframe computers to replace the human computers she supervises in the “colored wing,” and she recognizes the importance of learning computer programming to keep their jobs at NASA. She goes to the colored library but can’t find a book on Fortran, the emergent computer language at the time. So, she goes to the white library and finds the book, but is kicked out because she is black. She takes the book anyway, an act of theft, justifying her actions based the taxes she pays to support the entire system. Legal segregation and cultural prejudice deprived her of the ability to invest in her own skills and what economists call “human capital” to remain economically competitive and productive.

In another scene, a European-born engineer asks if African-American mathematician Mary Jackson (Grammy-nominated singer Janelle Monae) has considered becoming an engineer, and Jackson responds that if she were a white male she already would be one. He encourages her to continue aspiring to become an engineer. Mary Jackson, in fact, became NASA’s first black female engineer, but first she had to petition the city of Hampton, Virginia, to take night classes at the all-white Hampton High School. Education relevant to economic advancement was for all practical purposes inaccessible without the government’s permission.

But the crux of the story and the drama revolves around Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, Person of Interest, Empire). Goble works directly with the engineers trying to estimate the correct angle of the entry and re-entry for the Friendship 7, so that the spacecraft and its astronaut, John Glenn, would not burn up during re-entry. The white engineers can’t find the solution. Goble is brought into the research room to double check the math of the other engineers, especially the lead engineer played by Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory). Suffice it to say, none of the staff believe a woman, let alone an African-American woman, can perform the task. Fortunately, the tough-minded director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), embraces Goble’s value by acknowledging her excellence. He then uses his authority to override the prejudices that have made it harder for his team to achieve a mission critical goal. After chastising the teammates for creating a hostile work environment, he rallies them to focus on the end goal, effectively marginalizing the cultural impact of having an African-American woman on the team. In a brilliant plot twist, Goble solves the problem through her knowledge of abstract physics, not her computational skills alone. She alone recognizes that an old theory has application for sending the rocket into space and successfully returning it to earth.

Hidden Figures is, by most accounts, an accurate portrayal of the events and circumstances that led to the first Americans orbiting the earth, the courageous women who held onto their ambitions to break the color barrier, and the equally courageous men who did what was right to ensure the color barrier was shattered. The film, however, takes liberties to compress the timeline of real events to fit the movie plot. The movie sets up the action in the early 1960s, although many of the barriers were falling in the 1950s. Dorothy Vaughn took over as acting supervisor of the segregated West Area Computers in 1949, although her official promotion took several years. She also moved to electronic computing in 1961. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958.

Katherine Goble Johnson actually joined the government’s aerospace team in 1953, when she was assigned to the research division of NASA’s precursor. She reports that her knowledge of analytical geometry allowed her to quickly create allies among her supervisors and colleagues, who as result conveniently “forgot” to send her back to the West Area pool. Also, the colored computing pool was abandoned with desegregation in 1958, when NASA was formed. Johnson calculated flight windows for Alan Shepard in 1959 before she was assigned to John Glenn’s mission in 1961. Moreover, NASA began its life as an agency using digital computing.

The film stands out because of the compelling story, which leaves the audience wondering why they hadn’t heard of these events before, and the outstanding acting from the cast. Spencer shows clearly why she is one of America’s rising stars and adds another top performance to a growing list of outstanding credits. Monae nails the role of Mary Jackson, and Henson shows she can anchor the heavy story line of the film. Costner’s yoeman work as the Friendship 7 program director demonstrates why he has become one of Hollywood’s top character actors. He infuses just the right amount of toughness in a results-oriented character and shows how leadership can change cultural norms when it focuses on performance and not prejudice. Moviegoers won’t be in awed by the set or setting—most of film takes place in old, nondescript buildings and in the modest homes of the women at the center of the story. But this gives director Melfi a chance to let the acting shine and the story unfold.

The film does double duty in providing a history lesson about the injustices of racial prejudice and the idiocy of the segregationist laws that prevented smart people from fully contributing to their families and communities. Economists and economics teachers can also take note. Students could learn a lot about basic principles of labor market productivity, especially the consequences of allowing prejudice to limit economic opportunity and subsequently the contributions of human labor.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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