Hidden Figures: Why You Must Read the Book

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Books and movies have a long-standing and complex relationship. When a book becomes a best-seller, there’s an almost inevitable film adaptation in the works almost immediately. Then again, sometimes books that remain under the radar are made into movies, and then become best-sellers. And sometimes a film version of a book sparks a national conversation that the book alone couldn’t quite manage.

Such is the case with Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures.

The film rights to the book were sold before it even published, and the film was released just three months after the book’s publication last year. And the film has become a sensation, grossing more than $66 million so far and becoming the center of the new conversation on race, sexism, and even the doleful state of the American space program. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Kevin Costner, the film takes a fairly well-worn format—the historical, inspirational true but previously-unknown story—and transcends it by leaving that story fairly unvarnished. It’s also a nearly perfect film for this moment in time, a moment when America is questioning its own identity, its history (and future) in terms of race and gender, and its place as a world leader.

In short, Hidden Figures is definitely a movie you want to see. But it’s also a book you must read, even if you’ve seen the movie already and think you know the full story.

A Deeper Dive

Even though Hidden Figures is more than two hours long, it’s still a movie. That means it inescapably condenses events, elides moments, and deletes or combines characters and moments in order to create a narrative structure and a sense of drama. That’s fine; we all understand that a movie isn’t history.

But you’ll never get the full story from a film adaptation. Films can be like the Cliff’s Notes versions of books, giving you a high-altitude overview of a story, but the manipulation of timelines, people, and events in the service of story combined with the omission of events, people, and story in the service of story means that while Hidden Figures, the movie, might be compelling, enjoyable, and even somewhat educational, you’re missing half the story if you don’t read the book.

The White Guy in the Room

Speaking of manipulations, let’s talk about Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison. The Director of the Space Task Group didn’t actually exist, though of course there was a Director of the Space Task Group. There were several, in fact, during that period of time, and Costner’s character is a composite of three of them, based on the recollections of Katherine G. Johnson herself. Costner’s getting deserved praise for his performance as the white, middle-aged man who isn’t exactly a bad person—he’s just so enmeshed in his white, make privilege and the lack of awareness on racial issues at the time that he doesn’t even notice how oppressed and marginalized the black women in his department are.

So there’s no question that the character’s writing and performance are great, and serve the story. The issue is the simple fact that someone in Hollywood knew they needed to have a male star of Costner’s caliber to get the film made and marketed, and that’s why his role is as large as it is, and why he gets a few set-piece speeches (especially the apocryphal destruction of the “Whites Only” bathroom sign) that make him as much the center of the story as Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. If all you do is watch the movie, you might think that Al Harrison existed, and was as much a hero as the brilliant female computers that are the true focus of the story.

The Reality of Racism

Hidden Figures, the film, is entertainment, and as such it needs villains. There is no doubt that racism was prevalent in the 1960s (as it is today) and that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson had to overcome challenges that their white and male colleagues didn’t even know existed.

But according to Johnson herself, the film overstates the level of racism she actually experienced.

The fact is, while prejudice and segregation were facts, Katherine Johnson says she “didn’t feel” the segregation at NASA. “Everybody there was doing research,” she said, “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job...and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it.” Even the infamous bathroom-sprint across the campus was exaggerated; there were, in fact, bathrooms for blacks not nearly as far away—although there were indeed “white only” and “black only” facilities, and the black-only bathrooms were harder to find.

Jim Parsons’ character, Paul Stafford, is a complete fabrication who serves to embody many of the typical sexist and racist attitudes of the time—but again, doesn’t actually represent anything that Johnson, Jackson, or Vaughan actually experienced. Hollywood needs villains, and so Stafford (as well as Kirsten Dunst’s character Vivian Mitchell) was created to be the oppressive, racist white male of the story, even though Johnson’s recollections of her experience at NASA were largely unremarkable.

A Great Book

None of this means the story of these women and their work on our space program isn’t well worth your time—it is. Racism and sexism are still problems today, even if we’ve gotten rid of much of the official machinery of it in everyday life. And their story is an inspiring one that languished in obscurity for far too long—even star Octavia Spencer thought the story was made-up when she was first contacted about playing Dorothy Vaughan.

Even better, Shetterly has written a great book. Shetterly weaves her own story into the history, making clear the connections between the three women who are the focus of the book and the millions of black women who came after them—women who had a slightly better chance at realizing their dreams in part due to the fight that Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson took on. And Shetterly writes with a gentle, inspiring tone that celebrates the achievements instead of wallowing in the obstructions. It’s a wonderful reading experience filled with information and incredible background you won’t get from the movie.

Further Reading

If you want to know a bit more about the role women of all colors played throughout the history of technology in America, try Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt. It tells the fascinating story of the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1940s and 1950s, and offers another glimpse at how deeply buried the contributions of the marginalized have been in this country.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "Hidden Figures: Why You Must Read the Book." ThoughtCo, Jan. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/hidden-figures-why-must-read-book-4125141. Somers, Jeffrey. (2017, January 20). Hidden Figures: Why You Must Read the Book. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hidden-figures-why-must-read-book-4125141 Somers, Jeffrey. "Hidden Figures: Why You Must Read the Book." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hidden-figures-why-must-read-book-4125141 (accessed April 21, 2018).