In light of the 89th Oscars being held at the Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles this evening – or in the middle of the night if you’re on UK time, I wanted to discuss my favourite film from the nominations. On Friday I went to see Hidden Figures – if you have not watched it yet then do, it is incredible! So much so I went to watch it again yesterday and have tickets to see it in April when it is screen at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
A brief overview is that Hidden Figures tells the story of the women behind NASA in the 1960s, in particular the hidden African-American women behind helping to get John Glenn into Space aboard the Friendship 7 in 1961. The film has a fantastic cast playing the real life characters including Taraji P. Henson playing Katherine G. Johnson (aka The Human Computer), Octavia Spencer playing Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae playing Mary Jackson.
The film is based on Margot Lee Shetterley’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race. It explored how these women were segregated, prohibited access, shunned and publicly humiliated in their workplace and community. Despite this, these women did not give up their dream of working for NASA during the space race and beyond. I don’t want to spoil the story but each one of these women are inspirational in their own right and to all women across the world. Their perseverance, intelligence and brains are something to be marvelled at!
A particularly poignant moment for me within the film was when Katherine G. Johnson asked where the restrooms were. The response she received was, ‘well, I don’t know where you’re bathrooms are’. There were no ‘colored’ restrooms for Katherine in her building, forcing her to run a mile round trip across campus to the West Computer Group to relieve herself. Several scenes of the film showed the extent of segregation and humiliation Katherine and others faced when having to go to their designated bathrooms. Only when Katherine was asked to her whereabouts by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) did she respond and tell him she went to use the restroom for 40 minutes each day. With that Al took a crowbar to the ‘colored restooms’ stating,
‘We all pee the same colour, you can go wherever you want’.
This particular scene struck accord with me and made me think of Elaine Ginsberg’s book Passing and the Fictions of Identity. (1) Ginsberg defined passing in regards to African American citizens identifying as white Americans to enhance their social status and well as employability and respectability in society. (2) Although these women were not passing as white, they were still trying to better their position in America as their skin colour prohibited them to lead an equal life – despite them running rings around both men and women in NASA with their intelligence from early coding, the mathematics and engineering.
Ginsberg discusses that both gender and race are difficult to pass between because the individual is bound by social, cultural and legal constraints associated with their identity. She investigates that because ‘fraudulent ‘white” individuals were define legally as ‘negro’ is was difficult to move beyond these realms of social and legal connotations of racial minority. (3) Not to mention these women were also battling gender inequality in the work place as well as racial discrimination. Despite these obstacles, the women still successfully achieved what they wanted to and became a number of first’s in NASA.
Now, the reason for this post was in light of the Oscars, despite this film being about women, African-Americans, scientists, astrologists, engineers, based on real events, hopes and dreams, it still only managed to secure 3 Oscar Nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay). This is compared to the 14 Nominations received by La La Land which is another one of those romantic-comedy-dramas. Now, how does a true story about Space come second to an all singing all dancing rom-com? (I will admit that I have not watched La La Land so I won’t comment on its successes or failures whatever they may be).
I think that it is disappointing in 2017 that there is still a lack of equality in the world and gender and race are still playing a huge part in this segregation. It is only really through women like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson that women are still breaking boundaries and are still being firsts in their field.
So thank you ladies for allowing women from whatever background, culture, race or class to know that only the limits we put on ourselves can prohibit our success. Here’s to more firsts!
(1) E. Ginsberg, Passing and the Fictions of Identity, (Durham; Duke University Press, 1996).
(2) Ginsberg. Passing and the Fictions of Identity, pg. 3.
(3) Ginsberg. Passing and the Fictions of Identity, pg. 3.
Lee Shetterly, M. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped With the Space Race, (New York; Harper Collins, 2016).
Renfrow, D.G. ‘A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life’, Symbolic Interaction, 27:4, (2004), pp. 485-506.
Rottenberg, C. ‘Passing: Race, Identification and Desire’, Criticism, 45:4, (2003), pp. 435-452.