I tend not to watch films that deal with major historical atrocities such as slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights struggle, and the like because my anger at the unbelievable and pointless cruelty on display tends to obscure my appreciation of the film as a whole. This film tells the story of the important but largely unknown role that women, and black women in particular, played in the early days of the NASA space program and sure enough, I got furious, but the film was able to overcome my resistance.
The film is set in 1961 and focuses on three women who started out as ‘computers’, the name given to the people who ground out the calculations by hand before the advent of mechanical computers. (I had not known of this use of the word computer before.) It is based on the lives of three women Katherine Goble (a math whiz), Mary Jackson (a woman who had the knowledge and skills to be engineer), and Dorothy Vaughan (the head of the cadre of black women ‘computers’ and later a computer programmer herself).
Although the film is based on the lives of three real women, the filmmakers have, as is always the case, taken some liberties with the facts. For example, one of the iconic scenes is where after Goble becomes the only woman to be part of the engineering team to work on the calculations for Mercury and Apollo programs, she discovers that there are no segregated women’s bathrooms in her new building so she has to run the half a mile back across the campus to her old building every time she needs to use one. In reality, Johnson simply used the “whites only” women’s bathroom in her building and ignored the complaints and the issue was dropped. But that scene does vividly capture the petty cruelty and indignities of Jim Crow laws that pretty much every black person had to endure as part of their lives. Also Jackson did not have to get a court order to take the extra courses in a segregated institution to become an engineer, but she did have to ask for, and received, a special exemption to do so. But what these vignettes illustrate is how even the slightest thing that white people took for granted was a hurdle that black people had to expend time and energy to overcome and thus held them back. But it is apparently true as shown in the film that John Glenn was so impressed with the work of Goble that he specifically asked for her to check on the calculations for his orbit and re-entry.
Apart from the three women, all the others working on the space program represent composite figures and were created to make a more compelling story and this is understandable. The film’s director was criticized for introducing the ‘white savior’ trope by having the head of the program, who was focused on work and initially somewhat oblivious to the petty discriminations experienced by Goble at the hands of her white male fellow scientists and mathematicians, when made aware of it proceeded to break down the bathroom barrier and also taking Goble to a meeting with upper-level administrators that were attended only by white men. But this is defensible. We have to remember that there were white people who hated Jim Crow and worked to end it in their own small ways.
The story of the struggles these women faced to be accepted and recognized for their work was sufficiently absorbing for me that I felt that film lost tempo when it strayed into probing their personal lives. But fortunately the writers did not do that too much and also did not try to create additional tension by mixing in fake personal crises into their lives. Instead they stuck to the main story of telling, through the lives of the women, the largely unknown (to me at least) but important roles played by women in general and black women in particular in the space program.
Here’s the trailer.