Written by Suze Kundu

Arts

Review: Hidden Figures

Tough but inspirational is Suze Kundu‘s verdict on Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated tale of women of colour and science.

To boldly go: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are STEM pioneers. Photos: 20th Century Fox.

Based on a true story documented in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Hidden Figures focuses on the struggles of African-American women working at Nasa. That name alludes both to the ‘hard science’ these women had to handle, but also to their own discrete yet groundbreaking contributions to the space race.

The story begins with one of our three main characters, Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson), a young girl who can do mathematics far more advanced than anyone else in her year group. We then move on to see her working as a ‘computer’ – someone who did calculations, the literal meaning of the word long before we assigned it to inanimate objects – alongside other African-American women in a segregated block of Nasa’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia.

It is here we meet Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who dreams of becoming an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the resident computer programmer and self-appointed supervisor of the block.

Each of the women works hard and has success, and each ought to be going places fast. But, thanks to the extreme prejudice of the more male, more white majority of the complex and society itself, every time they take a step closer to their goal, someone puts a new barrier in their way.

“In 2017, the story that started with young Katherine Goble hasn’t finished yet: women are still vastly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths at higher levels, and black and minority ethnic women even more so.”

The movie is a tough watch, given these events only took place a few decades ago, but it’s also a total joy and an inspiration to see how these amazing humans chip away at those barriers to be taken seriously, to be noticed, and to be respected as a fellow mathematician or programmer or engineer.

It may sometimes be difficult to relate to the life that these women led, and the abuse they received due to nothing more than the colour of their skin. While the film was frequently funny and the characters were brought to life so wonderfully by the strong cast, it was also heartbreaking.

It is thanks to women like these paving the way that such luxurious opportunities have been available to me. It is thanks to people like my mum who moved to this country with my dad, initially temporarily, to fill a skills shortage, to work in the city, facing prejudice for being both a woman and a person of non-white ancestry.

I have been so lucky that I, a British Indian girl, was born at such a time and in such a society that does to an extent allow you to pursue any career you wish to have. I went on to become a science lecturer in a University engineering department, but my parents worked hard and broke down those barriers to earn the kind of money that would allow me those educational and social opportunities that I took for granted for so long.


And yet, in 2017, the story that started with young Katherine Goble hasn’t finished yet: women are still vastly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at higher levels, and black and minority ethnic (BAME) women even more so. The IET repeatedly report the fact that “nine per cent is not enough”, highlighting the fact that only nine per cent of engineers are female, while schemes like Athena SWAN aim to increase diversity in all of its many facets.

Hidden Figures is a celebration and acknowledgement of the work women like Goble, Jackson and Vaughan – and my mum – did in cracking wide open the white, male professional world, but also serves as a reminder that discrimination still exists against those of a different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability.

These characters remind us to remember our peers when we are given the opportunity to succeed, to work hard and believe in ourselves when people discriminate against us for our differences, and to not be afraid of being ‘a first’. After all, if it is going to be someone, why shouldn’t it be you?

Thanks to EDF Energy for giving us tickets as part of its (admittedly surprisingly named but well meaning) Pretty Curious campaign, which aims to get more girls into STEM professions. 

@funsizesuze

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Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze