In those days, much of NASA’s engineering and support operations were based in Virginia, which, pre-Civil Rights acts, was unrepentantly segregated. (Not that Florida or Texas would necessarily have been any better--.) I found it really painful to see segregated drinking fountains, segregated bathrooms, segregated bus seats, and to see that all those things existed at NASA, which should have been one of the most forward-thinking workplaces in the world. Instead, NASA employs a group of black women as their own “computing” unit, set off in a separate building except for when on particular individual assignments.
Gradually, the wall begins to break down, as Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) gets assigned to the unit engaged in orbital calculations. Johnson was a mathematical prodigy as a child, and as an adult can perform calculations in her head that make the male engineers’ eyes bug out. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) becomes NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) stakes a claim on the future by teaching herself Fortran and becoming an integral part of NASA’s new electronic computing division.
These events don’t necessarily happen smoothly, and a good part of the story deals with overcoming—or undermining, or working around—casual, institutional racism and sexism. Although racism is there—in one scene, someone anonymously brings in a separate coffee pot, labeled “colored” to the otherwise white office she is working in—I don’t believe I heard anyone at NASA say words to the effect of “black people can’t do that,” although, “women don’t do that” is a common theme.
The plot is interesting and engaging, especially to those of us for whom that history is also memory. I remember staying home from school to watch Mercury launches, and knew that it was a dangerous and daring thing at the time, but of course had no idea of how many people were required in how many ways to make it happen. The plot had drama, but wasn’t “juiced up”—I kept expecting one of the women to be menaced or roughed up, but that didn’t happen, although tension is there.
The Golden Globe award for best ensemble cast was well deserved. The three principal ladies were excellent, and very well supported by the rest of the cast.
I’m pleased and proud to report that my company, AT&T, along with other “tech” companies, is paying for school groups to see this inspirational and uplifting movie. Highly recommended.
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