ScienceMade possible by

Hidden Figures: Doing science ‘backwards, in high heels’

A new film depicting the extraordinary contribution of African-American women at Nasa during the space race offers a powerful and timely reminder of the contributions to science of people whose stories are too often hidden from view, writes Kate Hannah

Last weekend, Hidden Figures knocked the Star Wars universe film Rogue One off top place at the US box office, becoming the first female-ensemble cast film to take that position since The Help in 2011.

So what’s so special about Hidden Figures? Based on the true story of the lives and contributions of African-American women human “computers” at Nasa at the height of the space race, the film focuses on Katherine G Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Each, in their own area of expertise, breaks ground against discrimination towards African-American women.

The film operates as both a story of its time – the visual language of costume design and set embed this in the early 1960s – but also of all time, with clear, documentary-like links made to the real women on whose lives this retelling is based. In doing so, a Hollywood film, made for popular audiences, manages to pull off pointing towards the Civil Rights Movement: Jackson’s husband is actively involved, Vaughan and her children encounter a protest outside the public library, reference is made to Brown vs Board of Education, the seminal Supreme Court ruling that desegregated US schools, while still focusing on the personal, individual stories of these three women.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Similarly, brief reference is made to the pay gap for “Negro computers” but this does not become the key focus of the film. Instead, and powerfully, the personal is political – Hidden Figures is centred by the brilliance, wit, bravery, and humanity of Katherine G Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – and in doing so centres and valorises the communities and families which produced and supported them, a powerful counternarrative to contemporary depictions of black lives, such as the easy way in which President-Elect Donald Trump so recently dismissed Senator John Lewis with words that equated Black with “urban/crime-ridden/rundown”.

Hidden Figures celebrates the essential contributions of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan. The scene in which Dorothy Vaughan, who has taught herself the programming language Fortran with the help of a book she was forced to steal from the public library as it was in the whites-only section, gets the IBM supercomputer going – to the shock of the IBM men who have been trying to do this for weeks – is deeply, viscerally, satisfying. So, too, is the sheer brilliance of Johnson’s maths, calculating the go/no-go landing zone for John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. Then there’s Mary Jackson, who fought so hard to be the first African-American woman engineer at NASA, doing night classes in a segregated high school where the instructor tells her that the examples haven’t been designed for women. Katherine Johnson, running in her dress code-mandated high heels across the segregated Langley campus; first to use the “Colored Women’s” bathroom; then to confirm the recalculations of John Glenn’s orbit. Mary Jackson, joining the Mercury 7 engineering team, her heel caught in a grate just as an anti-gravity test starts. Dorothy Vaughan leading her team of human “computers” across the campus to run the IBM supercomputer, every high-heeled step they take desegregating the campus – everything more difficult, just like Ginger Roger’s dancing, because they’re having to do it backwards, in high heels.

Hidden Figures is based on the 2016 book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father was a Nasa scientist, and who says “growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine.” Shetterly’s book, and the immensely popular film which it has inspired, ensure that contemporary audiences have a better understanding of the past, and of the contributions of peoples whose stories have been “hidden”.

More on Margot Lee Shetterly’s The Human Computer Project here.

A gala screening of Hidden Figures to raise funds for a first year scholarship for a woman to study physical sciences, mathematical sciences, or engineering at any New Zealand university, is now sold out, but with a commitment to funding the full three years of undergraduate study, you can donate to an ongoing scholarship fund to be administered by the Association of Women in Science.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.