The Other Hidden Figures

The historical film drama Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016) depicts how the work at NASA of three black women — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — helped launch the first American man into orbit. Although all three women start in the West Area Computing unit, the segregated group of black women computers, Katherine and Mary are soon picked to join the Space Task Group and the space capsule engineering team, respectively. Following these two women’s narratives of extraordinary feats, the film ends up giving Dorothy’s story the least amount of screen time, often relegating it as metonym for the stories of the collective of black women computers.

The Other Hidden Figures is remix short that asks, what narrative might we tell if we focus our attention on the collective over the individual genius? Dorothy’s story arc guides us through this question. She initially asserts that “success for one of us is success for all” yet soon comes to realize that individual success alone does not effect long-lasting, structural change. Instead, she turns her attention to obtaining access to resources and knowledge for the entire group of black women and, during a crucial moment, to leveraging her own position to lift up all her colleagues.

In her article “Javascript is for Girls,” Miriam Posner demonstrates that the history of computing includes forms of gender policing, such as denigrating some types of work as less technically sophisticated and restricting credentials for those types considered more sophisticated. We see this dynamic play out in the stories of the black women computers. The white characters within the film consider the work of these women to be the least sophisticated tasks even though they are integral to launching a man into orbit. The film narrative itself reflects this dynamic by sidelining the computers in terms of screen time.

Innovation, or the relentless privileging of the new, also functions to marginalize and ostracize the black women computers. NASA’s fascination with an electronic computer that could replace the human computers ignores the fact that the IBM relies on humans to program it. Dorothy and her team teach themselves to code and further demonstrate the value that the maintainers have to the functioning of technology in society. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue, “innovation thinking” produces hero-worshipping, which ignores the important labor of minority low-wage workers that repair and maintain technologies that already exist.

Classical narrative film style necessitates individual protagonists who face yet overcome adversity. These individuals function as points of identification for the spectators. In other words, each audience member could potentially see themselves as the protagonist in the film. The ideologies privileged in this classical narrative style are individualistic rather than collective, favoring the exception over the ordinary. The Other Hidden Figures excavates the potential of the collective within the individual genius narrative. It shows how the rest of the black women computers in Hidden Figures also have a story of triumph that they achieve not because of extraordinary genius but through education, everyday work, and resistance to exclusionary measures.

The formal constraints on this remix video are meant to signal its ideological project. The Other Hidden Figures consists only of scene excerpts featuring a collective (i.e. two or more) of black women, or of those when Dorothy alone is working towards the benefit of all the computers. Edited between these excerpts are blank screens with a time code signifying the amount of time between scenes within the original film. The duration of the black screens scales down this time, one minute to one second. The 128 minutes of the original feature thus become merely 18 minutes. Despite the scaling down, allowing viewers to sit through the blank screens nonetheless should invite reflection on the length of the gaps that are left when we focus on collectives working together and remove scenes of extraordinary individual geniuses, heteronormative romance, and white men “solving racism” by hammering down a bathroom sign — a few examples of the tropes of classical narrative style.

[I created this remix video as an example of the kind of creative work the students in my Media Theory class could do for their final project. Full description of the assignment can be found here.]