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‘Hidden Figures’ Debunked: The Fact vs. Fiction in the Movie Based on the True Story

‘Hidden Figures’ Debunked: The Fact vs. Fiction in the Movie Based on the True Story

One of the most celebrated Black movies of 2016, Hidden Figures profiled three trailblazing Black women who helped Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. Although it was one of the most successful studio films of the past decade, there are moments that were completely conceptualized in an effort to make it more entertaining. In honor of National Moon Day, let’s separate the facts from fiction.

National Moon Day on July 20 commemorates the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. NASA reported this event as being “…the single greatest technological achievement of all time.”

There was a lot of work involved to make this happen. Three of the people who did that work were Black women scientists: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. They are truly unsung heroes, as most Americans were unaware that these women existed, let alone carved out space for themselves at NASA during the height of racial segregation.

I like to think of the film industry as that one friend we all have who exaggerates everything. Film adaptations of books or real-life events help bring stories to the public eye; however, how much of the history depicted in it is actually true? There are usually embellishments made in the process of adapting the source material to make it more compelling for the big screen.

Hidden Figures is set mostly in 1961 and 1962, in Virginia, where a central NASA research center is still based. The film doesn’t shy away from the insults, indignities, and discriminatory laws that Black people of Virginia, as well as Black employees of NASA, relentlessly endured, and it is an integral part to the movie. Those segregationist rules and norms — and the personal attitudes and actions that sustained them — are unfolded with a clear specificity.

Each of the women has a particular focus in the struggle for equality. Mary’s struggle takes place in a public forum, as she petitions a Virginia court for permission to take the night classes she needs in a segregated school. Dorothy learns that her entire department of “human computers” will soon be replaced by an electronic computer.

Katherine fights for her dignity and for opportunities at work. Her calculations are indispensable, but she fights prejudices against Black people, against women (none has ever been admitted to a Pentagon briefing where she can obtain the information needed for her analyses), and against plain ole’ bureaucracy.

The reality of the NASA space program, as described in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, was more united than the film’s focus on the women’s individual achievements suggests. Vaughan mastered the IBM 7090 computer together with a large team as opposed to figuring it all out on her own, and there’s no record in the book of Johnson being singled out to prove her math skills to the Pentagon officers. All records indicate that she was treated as a peer by her colleagues, no different than any other scientist.

Also in the book, the women are depicted as friendly but not best friends as they are in the film. I do like this embellishment and felt it was important to show a bond between them. We love to see Black women in sisterhood, so this worked well.

Remember Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison? He was not based on a single person but a combination of three different NASA directors at Langley, during Johnson’s time at the research facility. The film’s director, Theodore Melfi, decided to make Harrison a combined character, since he was unable to obtain the rights to the one man he wanted.

One of the most memorable scenes from the movie is when Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) finally explains to her boss Harrison why she has long periods of absence throughout the day — which was having to go a long distance to the colored bathroom. Shetterly’s book mentions Johnson’s frustration in having to look for a colored bathroom but she didn’t even realize that the bathrooms were segregated because they were unmarked. It would take years for her to even realize it, but she ignored it and continued to use the white restrooms. She actually refused to use the colored bathrooms.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) did have to file a petition with the City of Hampton to be able to attend classes at the whites-only Hampton High School, and, even though the process was not as difficult as in the movie, she was granted special permission and did not have to go to court.

In 1959, the poverty rate for Black people was over 30 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for whites, according to the U.S. census at that time. The day prior to the Apollo launch, Ralph Abernathy, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led a march to the Kennedy Space Center to protest what he called America’s “distorted sense of national priorities.” So, as white America was preparing for their greatest technological achievement, millions of rural Black people were hungry and living in poverty.

Abernathy and as many as 150 people told NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine the money spent on the impending launch could be better spent feeding Black people on Earth. Paine responded by saying, “Poverty is such a great problem that it makes the Apollo program look like child’s play.”

The protest highlighted the displeasure Black people had with the government prioritizing the moon landing over service to the poor. It was the sheer hypocrisy of spending money on the future, rather than taking care of the needs of a community that needed it in the present.

It’s worth mentioning that the majority of white America at that time didn’t even believe Apollo was worth the cost. However, the alternative was helping poor Black people, so, we know how that goes.

The year 1969 was a pivotal point in history: a time of injustice for some and progress for others. Hidden Figures, facts and fiction, showed us how a generation of Black women were inspired to push through to what most thought could not be accomplished. Dr. Mae Jemison was the first Black woman to travel in space in 1992, with Stephanie Wilson being the second. Wilson went on three Space Shuttle missions. Joan Higginbotham was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996. The most recent Black woman to travel to space is Dr. Sian Proctor. She flew as a private citizen, as a part of the Inspiration4 mission. She served as pilot on that mission, becoming the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. 

When it comes to movies, “based on a true story” sometimes translates to “embellished for entertainment purposes.” The result is a blend that we absolutely love but it’s always good to know the real journey from facts to fiction.

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