Hidden Figures: Screening Hidden Histories

Originally posted: June 2017

This year [2017] the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) ran screenings across the country to celebrate and highlight the history of science film Hidden Figures. I worked with Jessica van Horssen (Leeds Beckett University) to bring together interested people to view the film and discuss how the history of science, race, and gender are presented on screen. I helped to organise #HiddenFiguresParty events in the North East and gave talks and facilitated post-screening discussions in Newcastle, and in Leeds alongside Jessica – fulfilling a teenage dream of working at the glorious Hyde Park Picture House.

5a74d20500f46.imageHidden Figures is a race and gender-line crossing film about three African-American women who worked at NASA – mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – and it explores their roles in assuring the successful l963 launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. The film is an adaptation of Margot Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was completed as screenwriter Allison Schroeder was writing the script (commissioned from the book proposal).

Hidden Figures manages to elevate itself above other historical scientist biopics that tend to focus on a great man, his genius, and his heroic journey (e.g. The Imitation Game where Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberbatch invents and builds the Enigma code breaking machine singlehandedly). Instead, we are given the story of a team of women beset by everyday racism and misogyny who are integral to the success of US space missions Project Mercury and Apollo 11. Hidden Figures has three central figures, although Katherine Johnson, her family and her story acts as a structure for the film and is representative of the experiences of the woman human computers’ history that the film uncovers. The titular hidden figures are not simply Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary but all of the black women working in the segregated west section of Langley campus.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)

As indicated by the Hidden Figures opening sequence – where a confused police officer questions the women as they attempt to fix their car – the fact that black women were working at NASA during the 1960s was not well known. As Katherine explains in response to a question in a later scence about whether women can ‘handle’ such technical work: ‘Yes, they let women do some things at NASA, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses’. Few women scientists, and even fewer black women scientists, are seen on the silver screen; they are often defined by their male counterparts (fathers, brothers, lovers) and framed as sci-candy rather than fully realised scientists. I was so excited by the release of Hidden Figures precisely because it placed women scientists at its centre rather than on the fringes of another man’s story.


In one post-screening session, my opening comment seemingly formed an apology. I apologised for the lack of diversity of those leading discussions. I recognised the issues with a white British woman talking about a film about the lives of African-American women. This reflected a more general lack of diversity within the HSTM (history of science technology and medicine) community and in British academia more broadly. We were confronted with choosing between running the #HiddenFiguresParty with problematic hosts or not running the events at all. But it was important for there to be a forum to exchange views on a film that challenged ideas of what a scientist looks like.

taraji-p-henson-katherine-gobleDiscussions also focussed on Hidden Figures’ negative components such as the invented character Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner who ably fills the great white man role. Harrison only judges people on their talents and heroically puts his nation’s scientific ambitions ahead of national and institutionalised racism and sexism. During such a conversation in Leeds, a voice from on high (the cinema has a balcony) asked us to stop apologising and to stop being so negative. We were implored to consider how important this film was for a black audience, and specifically black woman viewers who have rarely seen themselves presented as professional scientists or even heroes in mainstream Hollywood movies. It allowed us to start more positive discussions of the film, returning to the enthusiasm underpinning these events and opening up the floor for more personal stories about the experiences of women in STEM.

What about the women? This is often a relevant question for historians of science – in our discussions of Hidden Figures at Newcastle, we asked: what about the men of colour? Margot Shetterly’s own African-American father was a research scientist at NASA. But this is a Hollywood movie and it focuses solely on African-American women scientists at the expense of an accurately representing NASA’s 1960s workforce. There are limits to what can be included in a 90-minute feature film that needs a clear message and an easy to explain story – black women scientists at NASA – so that it can get funding and eventually Oscar’s corridor distribution. I hope that the success of Hidden Figures will inspire Hollywood to produce more films like it and offer a great range of role models for young viewers because representation matters.

For those who wanted more detailed histories I suggested reading Shetterly’s book, and in response to queries about British human computers happily recommended Marie Hicks’ 2017 monograph Programmed Inequalities: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing. This book traces the history of women in computing in the UK and their increasing marginalisation as computing shifted from being considered low-skilled (woman’s work) to being high paid skilled work (man’s work).

So what did we achieve? By offering events to cinemas we were able to get some to add Hidden Figures to their programme, even if only for one showing! We spoke to people who were encouraged to attend the screening because of the opportunity for discussion. At these events we were able hear stories from women scientists from different races who wished that there had been films like Hidden Figures when they were growing up, young women who found the film inspiring, people who wanted to discuss screening history and science, and even helped several young women (A-level STEM students) to find work experience. Thank you to everyone who organised, spoke at, or attended one of the BSHS Hidden Figures screenings.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 09.42.26

Originally published by Viewpoint the magazine of the British Society for the History of Science in issue 113. Original publication: http://www.bshs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Viewpoint-113-Web.pdf

Citation: Chambers, A.C., 2017. Hidden Figures: Screening Hidden Histories. Viewpoint 113 (June), p.14.

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