Hidden Figures (2016)

“What Color Is Your Computer?”


In his 1986 book, Grammophone, Film, Typewriter, German cultural theorist Friedrich Kittler builds a pessimistic history of communication technology by observing the nineteenth century slippage between the newly invented typewriter (whose first success came in 1868 in the post-Civil War United States), and the mostly women who soon operated the machines. Kittler sees this linguistic development as a harbinger of other developments in the wake of the Industrial Revolution as bringing about the end of our humanity, resulting in what he terms, brutally, “so-called Man.”

Director Theodore Melfi’s new film, Hidden Figures—based on an eponymous nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly—peddles a similar linguistic slippage. It so caught me off guard, despite the fact that I have been studying Kittler’s work religiously for decades, that I failed to understand the film’s central plot point for at least half of its run. Three African-American professional women—mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and one engineer, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)—begin working at Langley Research Center in Virginia at the beginning of the space race. Katherine and Dorothy are assigned to a room filled with adding machines. When the Space Task Group needs a specialist mathematician, Katherine is called up to work under the wing of director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford serves as Katherine’s immediate supervisor, fresh off his role as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, unable to understand the intricacies of working with women, never mind African-American women.

Every day, Katherine finishes her work by typing up a report. She first types “by Paul Stafford” but then adds “Katherine Johnson” to the byline. Stafford repeatedly critiques, “computers do not write reports.” For the first half of the film, I couldn’t figure out why Stafford thought the typewritten document handed to him by Katherine was written by a computer. It is only in the latter half of the film that NASA struggles to use FORTRAN to program their new IBM mainframe.

But Stafford’s condensation is in fact the one studied by Kittler: Katherine herself is a computer, a brute force mathematician whose job it is to mechanically grind out telemetry data. Her job will be replaced by the IBM computer, but until then, she is the human precursor to the machine. Hidden Figures pushes this conceit, the slippage between the tenor and the vehicle of its verbal metaphors, in intriguing directions, and in a far more optimistic way than that proposed by Kittler. The film replaces “so-called Man” with “definitely present African-American woman.”

The very title of the film engages the slippage. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, as African-American women working in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, are the hidden figures that the film must unearth after decades of films about the American space program. No such engagement with race was a part of The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, the hallmarks of American self-representation.

At the same time, the women’s work as mathematicians, as computers, unearths not the figure of the human body, but the elegance of mathematics. In the third act, the Space Task Group cannot figure out how to convert the elliptical orbit of John Glenn’s projected path into a parabolic curve that will be needed for him to return safely to the Earth. Katherine runs out of the room to go find an old mathematics textbook and settles upon Euler’s transformation.

What can explain her discovery? Is it because Katherine has grown up in a world of separate but equal where out of date math books were the tools of her trade, her experience so different from her white counterparts, forged in the cauldron of the illogic of Jim Crow culture? Or, even more aggressive of a reading, is the work of Leonhard Euler, an 18th century geometrician an allegorical stand-in for the Enlightenment philosophy that failed to end the slave trade in its time, but set in motion a cascade of liberation philosophy that would by the late 1960s come to fruition in the United States? Either way, the hidden figures that Katherine discovers in Euler’s work, unseen by all of her white counterparts, results in the success of John Glenn’s mission, the turning point in the US space race against the Soviet Union. Albeit fifty years too late, Katherine finally becomes a visible figure in the story of this, one of the great triumphs of American ingenuity.

Thus, not only does Hidden Figures refuse Kittler, declining to see the slippage between computer as machine and computer as profession as a declension of mankind into technological slavery, the film elegantly doubles down on the productivity of such metaphorical transformation. Improbably, Al Harrison—Kevin Costner in full-blown Dances With Wolves Hollywood liberalism—brings about an end to Jim Crow within the halls of NASA. He yells at Katherine for being absent from her desk so often while the task group is struggling to catch up to the Russians. Katherine finally explodes, demanding that he see the direct manifestations of Jim Crow. She must run a half mile across the base to find the nearest toilet designated for her use. In a ridiculously melodramatic scene, Harrison uses a sledgehammer to knock down the “colored” sign atop the ladies bathroom in his building. He declares with Costnerian greatness, “we all pee the same color at NASA.”

The moment, of course, proclaims the end of Jim Crow absurdly too early. Costner is not able to dismantle all of the racist signs at NASA, never mind those on the public streets just off of the base. Back on the west side inside his very compound, indeed, Dorothy still works in a room demarcated “colored computers.” This represents another turn of the screw for Kittler’s project of dehumanization. For not only are the computers both machines and women, like the typewriters of the late 19th Century, in Jim Crow Virginia, it is the operators who are segregated by the labels “white” and “colored,” not the machines themselves.

This slippage comes crashing down around NASA when Dorothy secretly trains her “colored computers” to learn to program FORTRAN. When the white computer specialists from IBM cannot get their machine working, Dorothy’s army of Black women swoops in to save the day. Crucially, this computer begins its role in the film as comic relief: the men at NASA can’t get it into the room because the door jamb is too small. Like with Jim Crow, Harrison orders the door sledgehammered. Unlike Kittler’s prediction, that such machines will enslave humanity, in Hidden Figures, the IBM machine will render the absurd label “colored computers” obsolete, pointing to a future in which such a label will only make sense when applied to pastel shaded iMacs.

–Walter Metz