Hidden Figures – Movie Discussion
There are so many beautiful things to take away from this important and feel-good movie about America’s advancement in both technology and humanity. It’s been said that a rising tide raises all boats and that’s certainly what we see here. As America’s technological tide was rising in their race to space, women and African Americans were also finding themselves in unforeseen positions of respect and importance in the space program. Or, perhaps it was because women and African Americans were allowed to rise that the space program was elevated. Chicken or the egg, really. As Dorothy put it, “Any upward movement is movement for us all.” This is the absolute beauty of God’s Kingdom, that when God pours out His blessing it’s for the good of all. He raises the tide and all ships are lifted—a principle so well-depicted in Hidden Figures.
The more we understand this principle, that God is the one who brings in the tide, and that it is God who is able to lift our ships, the more we are able to rest and trust God to work on our behalf. This was perhaps the most memorable thing to me about this movie—the way in which those three, lovely, African-American women cooperated with God in the rising of their ships.
Mary, Dorothy and Katherine were three African-American women in the NASA computer space program. They were hired as “computers,” to compute numbers long-hand as modern-day computers hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps that in the first place was a big step of progress, but they wanted more. Mary wanted to be an engineer but felt it would be “impossible”. “I’m a Negro woman. I’m not going to entertain the impossible.” But, Karl Zelinski rightly pointed out, “Mary, I’m a polish Jew whose parents died in the concentration camp. And now I’m [in the space program]. We are living the impossible.” Just because something hasn’t been possible before, doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.
She had some significant obstacles to overcome, however. She had to be certified to become an engineer, but the classes she needed to take to be certified were for white people only. She could have taken the advice of her husband who said, “Civil rights ain’t never civil.” His approach was defensive and combative. Mary took a more subtle approach. She went to court to defend her right to the classes and appealed to the judge’s history. There were several things in which he had been the first. (I don’t remember specifics, but let’s say firs to graduate college, etc.) He had been on the cutting edge of history in many different ways, which she artfully pointed out, appealing to his ego, really. She then gave him the “opportunity” to be on the cutting edge of “first” again.
You, of all people, should understand the importance of being first. First in your family to … First to… First to… I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you’re going to hear today, which one will matter a hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?
Brilliant. She didn’t come in with a chip on her shoulder, she came in with a vision and an opportunity for people to join her in a moment of greatness, an opportunity to make history! It worked.
Dorothy had a manager that continued to hold her back. Dorothy kept on, faithfully and respectfully applying for management positions. It wasn’t fair, but again, she didn’t respond with entitlement or hostility. Her motto was, “You act right, you are right. That’s for certain.” She didn’t respond to the unfairness and prejudice around her in kind (as it is so tempting to do)—she found a better way.
She found out that the first non-human computer was being introduced at NASA. She was smart enough to realize that that “progress” would be a double-edged sword and that she and “her girls”, her fellow computers, wouldn’t be needed much longer if they didn’t find a new role. She started learning computer programming and took the initiative to teach and prepare the girls under her care. When NASA couldn’t get the computer to work, Dorothy fixed the problem and made herself indispensable. As a result, she not only became a manager, but (even more important to her) because of her initiative and foresight, all of her girls, rather than lose their jobs to computers, were able to work under her leadership as computer programmers.
Katherine was so particularly brilliant with numbers, she was brought out the room of computers to work with the core launch team engineers (I’m sorry—I’m not sure what that group was actually called). She was the only African American working in that group, and suffered numerous slights and injustices, perhaps most notably the bathroom. In a time when whites and blacks had separate bathrooms, there was no bathroom for her. Whenever she needed to go to the bathroom, she had leave the building (rain or shine) and walk/run a significant distance (in her required heels). She did so without complaint, without saying a word, no matter how hard it was for her (emotionally, physically and professionally).
Her boss began to get frustrated with how often she was missing from the office (and for such long periods of time). He finally exploded in frustration in front of the whole office, assuming she was goofing off and taking breaks when everyone else was working hard. It was such a painful scene. She was humiliated and called out publically in front of the very people who had been insulting her at every turn (in addition to the restroom, she had to use a separate coffee pot, had a supervisor who was threatened by her genius and subtly sabotaged her work, etc.). And on top of that, she had to discuss her need to use the restroom in front everyone.
There are a lot of ways to respond in such a situation, not many of them very good. Sweet, humble Katherine, however, replied with strength and dignity, but also with honesty and respectfulness. She told her boss the truth, that she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom there and that she had to run, every day, to Timbuktu, basically, to use the bathroom because they wouldn’t let her use the white restroom and there wasn’t a colored restroom available in that building. Her mortification was evident, but it was also powerful. She could have basically said “f-you” (please forgive my French) “I don’t need this” and left, but she didn’t. She willed herself to endure the humiliation and speak the truth, and in the end, she was lifted up (see the verse below from 1 Peter which really exemplifies her storyline). Her boss tore down the “white” restroom sign in front of everyone saying, “No more colored restrooms. From now on, go wherever you please. Preferably closer to your desk.”—with a beautiful line about how “At NASA we all pee the same color”.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:6-10)
Katherine was restored to grace, confirmed by the boss in front of everyone, her position was even strengthened (she was able to do her work better without the loss of time and distraction, and the coffee issue was rectified as well), and through that, her position at NASA in that department was established more fully. When the computers later made her position unnecessary, Katherine again accepted the loss of her job with dignity and humility. And again, God restored her. There was a discrepancy in the numbers from the computer and John Glenn personally requested Katherine to do the numbers. He said that he would trust her judgement.
Vision, excellence, humility—these were their weapons, their tools of advancement. Such a powerful message in a day and age of entitlement and of “claiming your rights.” We are constantly told that we need to fight for ourselves, defend ourselves, push for our rights, etc. But these women show a better way. They show how we can inspire others to greater things. How our excellence can open doors for us. How when we humble ourselves, God can open doors for us. God calls us to fight with different weapons than the world uses (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). He says His ways are not our ways, they are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
So, for those of us who feel something is being withheld from or denied to us, let these amazing women be an example. We live in impossible times when we are in God’s Kingdom. He can move mountains and He is doing a new thing. He has surprising ways. Our job isn’t to push and fight and demand for ourselves, but rather to ask God how he would like us to approach the situation. Know that, always, inspiring people with vision, living with excellence and humbling ourselves before our fellow man and more importantly before our God—those three things are beautiful, powerful weapons that are always welcome in the Kingdom of God.
For those of us who are in positions of power, influence and control, let us learn from Mr. Harris’s advice. He advised the young Paul who was the insecure, threatened supervisor over Katherine that continued to thwart and suppress her progress, “You know what your job is, Paul? Find the genius among the geniuses. … Pull us all up.” Mr. Harris understood that a rising tide raises all ships. He didn’t see other’s genius as a threat, but as a blessing to all. He agreed with Mary, “Any upward movement is movement for us all.”
Questions for Discussion:
- How do you think you would have responded if you had been in each of those three women’s shoes?
- We may not have separate restrooms for races anymore, but do you think there are still injustices and prejudices in our culture?
- Have you ever suffered injustice and prejudice for anything, been overlooked for something you were qualified for? How did you respond?
- Vision, excellence and humility—these were the ways in which the women set themselves apart—how can those qualities help you achieve what you desire in your life?
- In 1 Peter 5:6-10 we are commanded to humble ourselves before God, endure hard times patiently, and wait for God to restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us. How did these women illustrate this verse? Have you ever exemplified this verse in your own life? How might you apply this verse to situations in your life currently?