7 January 2017 | steven-leibson
Punches all my buttons: segregation, space, engineering, computers
I'm an engineer. I designed computers, I grew up in the south during the 1950s and 1960s. I was heavily involved in the space race at an early age and watched every launch and recovery on black-and-white TV. I never saw separate restrooms and drinking fountains for "colored" but they were there. I never rode on segregated public buses, but they were there and I knew it. This movie, "Hidden Figures," brings all of these worlds back to me. No, it's not a painstakingly accurate picture. NASA didn't have flat-panel screens back then. Communications between the ground and the Mercury capsules were not static-free. But a lot of this movie feels real. Very real.
The protagonists in this movie are three women of color working in one of the most unwelcoming environments they might hope to find: NASA Langley, Virginia, in 1961. As women, they were employed as human "computers" because they were less expensive and they got their numbers right. As "colored" folk, they got their own separate (and sparse) restrooms and their own, separate dining facilities. This was not America's shining hour, even in some place as lofty as NASA.
At the same time, civil unrest was rising in the towns. This is the time of Martin Luther King's rise to prominence. It's a time just before the rise of militant civil rights groups. It's a time when resistance to segregation and discrimination was still civil, but as the movie shows, that resistance was beginning to firm up and become widespread.
There are several reasons to see this movie: from a civil rights perspective; from a feminism perspective; from the perspective of the early space race when we lagged the Soviet Union, badly. If you lived during this time, see the movie to remember. If you were born later, see this movie to see what things were like.