I am grateful that this film was made, not only because it is an important testimony against racism but also because in the midst of violent blockbusters often depicting imaginary superheroes the very real lives of three black female mathematicians working for NASA is an inspiring reminder of our human potential.
Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly the film follows the lives of mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. At the time NASA was determined to outdo the Russians who had successfully launched into space a dog, a monkey, and finally Yuri Gagarin.
But the ‘coloured’ women worked in a segregated environment and the film stresses their difficulties in using toilets, getting promotions and accessing higher education. The background scenery is the struggle for civil rights conducted by Martin Luther King. Even if the women in the story were not particularly involved in the more activist side of it, some of their friends and relatives brought it into their lives. The film avoids falling into the stereotype of seeing every white as a racist and depicts a number of characters with different and nuanced attitudes. It also points out that discrimination is not just about race but also gender, as Katherine’s future husband shows initially his sexism by experessing doubts about a woman’s capacity to work in her very skilled field.
The few departures from historical accuracy (inevitable in a Hollywood production) which can be found in the Wikipedia page of the film do not alter substantially the story and apparently one of the real life characters expressed satisfaction with the results.
A very important point the film makes, in my view, is that education should aim to nurture every child’s potential. The heroines of this story were lucky that even in such a segregated environment their abilities were recognised early and special arrangements were made, at least for one of them. How many bright minds are lost due to discrimination everywhere, and poverty in less developed countries? How many more discoveries in the fields of medicine and science in general could be made if every child had the best education to develop their full capacity?
Unfortunately in spite of the enormous gains made against racism and sexism there is still a huge amount of work to be done to abolish these and all other forms of discrimination. The positive energy exuding this film can help us commit to work in this direction.