This movie about the contributions of young black women working at NASA in the early days of the Mercury program was pretty good, as you might expect, considering that most of its success came from word of mouth. But it might have been even better one.
In the early 1960s, IBM mainframes were new and untested and most math computations were still done by human “computers.” Even after the IBM went online, many of the flight engineers (not to mention the astronauts) wanted to make sure that a human being verified the numbers. To fill these positions, NASA recruited women math and engineering graduates at historically black colleges in the Jim Crow South. Although these women were initially assigned to a segregated “colored computer center,”many were quickly sent over to work with teams in the main NASA building, across the parking lot, in Langley Virginia. The stories of three of these women are the focus of this movie. All of them had long and successful careers at NASA; one of them, still alive at 98, appeared at the Oscars.
As is typical for this type of movie, some of the least believable incidents actually occurred (with a few modifications made for dramatic effect). John Glenn really did ask Katharine to recheck his trajectories (although he did it before the flight, not on the launch pad). And Katherine’s tirade about having to cross the parking lot just to go to the bathroom really did end segregated rest rooms at NASA (although it was a different woman whose speech precipitated the change).
The movie goes off track a bit in deciding to create two composite characters to demonstrate the stone-cold institutional racism of the day. This is unfair to NASA, most of whose employees were very sympathetic to the issues affecting their co-workers. But it also understates the real problem — few racists are as obvious and explicit about their racism as the fake characters in this movie. Many racists are charming and gregarious, and much more dangerous for that.
The movie is at its best, and is most effective, when it depicts the significant racial barriers that did exist — from segregated buses and drinking fountains to restrictions on what books could be borrowed from public libraries — in a matter-of-fact way. It came as more of a surprise than it should have that, 7 years after Brown v. Board, one of the women had to get a court order to attend an engineering certification class at a local all-white high school. I also liked the historically accurate depiction of John Glenn’s troubled flight — I well remember, watching the TV coverage as a child, that when Glenn entered the communications “blackout” on re-entry there was some doubt that he would emerge safely on the other side. The depiction of the segregated but reasonably prosperous northern Virginia suburb where the women lived also seemed authentic.
The three lead actresses — Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae — are all excellent, as are Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles. (Ironically, Ali has more screen time in this movie than in Moonlight, the one he won the Oscar for).
Historical footnote — the Pentagon, built in the late 1940s, apparently has twice as many bathrooms as is typical for buildings of its size. That’s because the building, even though it was meant to house part of the federal government, was still subject to the building codes of the Jim Crow South, which required separate bathrooms for white and black employees. I understand, however, that the bathrooms at the Pentagon were never segregated in practice.