It's hard not to read something into the arrival of Hidden Figures, one of the only Hollywood movies about black women's contributions to technology, at the end of a year that was pretty dismal for women and people of color.
This movie, after all, comes on the heels of many well-publicized police shootings of unarmed black men and women; Hollywood's #OscarsSoWhite; scant progress in the tech industry's diversity pledges; and, of course, the election of a president who ran on racist and sexist rhetoric.
Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly's exhaustively-researched book of the same name, provides a weird sort of escapism into a triumphant story of an even darker era. Set more than fifty years ago, the film chronicles the groundbreaking work of black women mathematicians and engineers employed by NASA during the 1960s space race.
Its main characters accomplish professional marvels despite institutionalized segregation, which banned them from using workplace restrooms or taking the advanced engineering classes they needed to earn promotions. (All of which makes the modern tech industry's scapegoating of "the pipeline" seem like an even flimsier excuse.)
Like the fictional space drama The Martian, the movie is an ode to competence and scientific intelligence, demonstrated by the people who don't usually get to show such professional accomplishments onscreen. (And unlike The Martian's fictional white male hero, the heroines of Hidden Figures really existed.) Some of the most affecting scenes show Johnson writing equations on a blackboard, while the white men around her go silent in awe of her brilliance.
The film manages to be both feel-good and unsentimental about the segregated reality facing its characters, and about the scope of their resulting victories. Its most satisfying moment involves its main character, a 40-something black woman, being referred to as a "girl" by a white male hero, astronaut John Glenn. "The smart one," he adds.
After all, back-handed compliments were often the best that women like Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician and human "computer" who calculated Glenn's trajectory into space, could expect in the 1960s. The movie chronicles the lives of Johnson, who went on to work on the Apollo moon landing and the space shuttle program; Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician and programmer who became NASA's first African-American manager; and Mary Jackson, who became NASA's first female African-American engineer.
Hidden Figures, as its name implies, is also a long-overdue recognition of the work that these women and up to hundreds more did to advance American technology. As Shetterly writes, "There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians."
The story is also an implicit argument to change the modern narrative about heroes, whether in film or in real life. That starts with whose accomplishments get recognized as valid, who claims the credit, who gets promoted, who gets encouraged, and who ultimately is remembered by history. Per Shetterly:
The story of "the women's contributions to one of the most transformative technologies in the history of humankind...would get passed along as family lore, but leave barely a fingerprint on the histories of the black men and women who fought for progress in their communities, of the women who pushed for equality for their gender in all aspects of American life, of the engineers and mathematicians who taught humans to fly."
It's striking that, according to Shetterly, the women she profiles did actually get press recognition at the time for many of their accomplishments. It was the historians, novelists and filmmakers of the years immediately following, who overlooked Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and the rest of their colleagues.
Let's hope the current and future generations of women who are defying the percentages in tech and entrepreneurship are remembered longer--and that it doesn't take another 50 years to celebrate their breakthroughs.