Remembering Katherine Johnson and Others In Shetterly’s Hidden Figures

This week we lost Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who was an integral part of the United States race to space. Her calculations were so spot-on that astronaut John Glenn requested she double-check behind the NASA computers to make sure all the math was correct. In her 35-year career, she broke down racial and social barriers as she was one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. After receiving both a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, Johnson lived a long hardy life to the age of 101.

With her contributions so carefully immortalized in the book Hidden Figures, we figured (no pun intended) that it would only make sense if we shared a piece that our editor-in-chief Shannon Jay wrote back in 2016 when the book’s author Margot Lee Shetterly came to speak at Old Dominion University in conjunction with the release of the Oscar-nominated film based on her book. For anyone who has not read the book or seen the film, we can’t recommend it enough and urge you to seek it out.

“We are the breath of our ancestors” rang the harmonized voices of Old Dominion’s choir, an appropriate sentiment for the events unfolding the night of January 11th.

The song “We Are”, by acclaimed all female, all African-American acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, encompassed the themes explored in the university’s 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observance.

The main event was speaker Margot Lee Shetterly — if you don’t recognize the Hampton, VA native by name, the title of her first novel, Hidden Figures might ring a bell. The best-seller was turned into a feature-length film and hit theaters in a big way, beating out Star Wars for the #1 spot at the box office in its first week.

The story follows four women, two of which received honorary degrees from ODU. During the years of 1943 through 1968, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden worked with other black female mathematicians at NASA Langley in a segregated room. With only pen and paper, these women computed through World War II and went on to calculate the trajectories that would orbit John Glenn around Earth and send Neil Armstrong to the moon.

Coming from no farther than West Virginia, these four extraordinary women are woven in the fabric of our state’s history. “This is a celebration of this place and its people,” Shetterly said. “We have always known this region is a place of fascinating and often complicated history, but now the world knows it, too.”

During a time when segregation was still heavily prevalent and women couldn’t even get a credit card in their own name, “the women of Hidden Figures upend [what it means to] be female, to be black, to be a scientist, and to be American,” Shetterly said.

Mary Jackson had to apply for special permission at Hampton High School to take advanced math classes, and went on to become presumably the country’s first black female aerospace engineer. Katherine Johnson was born in 1918, a birth year where black baby girls faced just a 2% chance of graduating high school. She calculated the orbital space flight that allowed John Glenn to achieve “American domination of the heavens” during the Space Race. Christine Darden, from a segregated grade school with second hand textbooks and no science lab, wrote the computer program that set the industry standard for sonic boom minimization, and became NASA’s leading expert on the topic.

While the night focused on King’s ideals to improve the lives of African-Americans, and how those same values are applied to women, Shetterly wanted to make clear these women “wanted to be what John Glenn says in the movie — the ‘smart one,’ [just] the right person for the job.” She emphasized that the women of the Hidden Figures story needs to be told “not just because they are black or because they are women, but because they too are part of our great American epic.”

Image courtesy of NASA

In the shadows instead of out on the streets, Shetterly said, these women were “marching not with their feet, but with their mathematical talent” for racial and gender equality. There’s an added layer of nobility with this particular group’s civil rights work, having faced dehumanizing segregation at work daily. However, Shetterly said, “they wore their professional clothes like armor, [and] they wielded their mathematical talent like a weapon, warding off the presumption of inferiority because they were black or female.”

Shetterly’s father worked alongside these women at NASA, and the author only heard their story when her husband, Aran Shetterly, inquired about her father’s time there. That was 6 years ago, and ever since Margot Lee Shetterly has interviewed the women and spent time with their families to uncover the untold story. Their amazing achievements inspired her to found The Human Computer Project, which works to archive all the stories of African-American women who worked as computer scientists and mathematicians at the height of NASA that history has skimmed past.

The Human Computer Project aims to collect and highlight the contributions of women to NASA and NACA throughout the years.

The women of “Hidden Figures” felt the weight of the responsibilities the ODU choir hummed and Sweet Honey in the Rock chanted. “They knew,” Shetterly said, “that every action they took over the course of their long careers would have implications for the next generation of people who looked like them.” Along with being great at their job, Shetterly said, these women and their colleagues were out to prove “that excellence has neither color nor gender.”

When an audience member asked if the film would have a sequel, Shetterly responded that it won’t be a direct second act, but she’s working on another book, and hopes for a long career in telling stories untold.

From Shannon Jay: “Johnson was there that day, and even then I realized how special it was to share a room with history – a woman whose achievements were monumental and so important not only to black women, but to all of America. Now, with her passing, it’s a moment I’ll hold even more dear.

Katherine Johnson 8/26/1918 – 2/24/2020

TBT: Ranking Pretention in 1970s Sci-Fi

by Katharine Coldiron 

It’s been my observation that although aesthetics generally were at their worst in the American 1970s (clothes, home décor, haircuts), it was an unparalleled golden era for filmmaking. In no other decade did American directors so thoroughly plumb the power of cinema: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Cimino, Malick, and even the disgraced Allen did most of their best work between 1970 and 1980. 

However, the decade’s silly side is as memorable as its serious one. And some films have a high volume of both. Particularly in science fiction, for some reason; a surprising number of sci-fi films from the 1970s are incredibly self-serious. They bear deep intellectual ideas, but are executed with overly trendy production design and cringey scripts. 

Here are five 70s sci-fi films of particular note, each ranked with a Pretentiousness Score. The higher the score, the more the film fails at getting the viewer to take it seriously. This failure specifically derives from a gap between the loftiness of the film’s ideas and the ludicrousness of its execution. 

Silent Running (1972) 

Hijinks ensue when Bruce Dern dons a caftan and looks after plants in space, to the point of committing three murders to preserve them. Few plants are left alive after the planet’s biosphere has become too hostile to them (apparently?), and the remains of Earth’s forests and flowers live in domes in space, cared for by rotating teams of white men. Also, robots, named after Donald Duck’s nephews. No women appear in this film whatsoever, not even computerized voices. 

There’s a lot of Silent Running’s DNA in Moon and WALL-E, but it’s much more static than its descendants, and Dern and his environmentalism personify all the worst jokes about vegetarianism and tree-hugging. His method of trying to get the jockish other astronauts to give a damn about Earth’s last remaining trees mainly entails shouting and nurturing resentment. Not fifteen minutes in, Joan Baez sings a preachy ballad about children and sunshine. A sincere moral conflict about comfort, authenticity, and the shortsightedness of the human race, buried under decaying hippie rhetoric and obvious to-scale models.

Pretentiousness Score: 5/5 


Rollerball (1975) 

Hijinks ensue when a ridiculously dangerous sport holds the monied class in thrall in a fascist, pill-addled future. James Caan is the champion of this sport who, because he won’t retire, destabilizes the whole society and causes the deaths of many, many people. This one’s interesting in part because the idea of a single hero is threatening to the corporate overlords who run the world. It’s an example (also seen in Twilight Zone episodes) of mid-20th-century art that presents communism as a threat in ideological manifestations that are unrecognizable today. 

Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) made this one, and he was infuriated that, upon release, everyone loved the sport depicted in the film, because jeez, you guys, it’s an allegory. Ha. Everyone knows allegories don’t look this exciting. Aside from the actual scenes of rollerball in play, the movie drags like hell, and Caan looks constipated throughout. The fonts are wonderful, and the corporatism is familiar and troubling; the collar flaps are unfortunate, the script is tedious, and the women are sexy lamps.

Pretentiousness Score: 4/5 


Soylent Green (1973)

Hijinks ensue when the planet dries up, food sources shrink, the gap between rich and poor widens untenably, the infrastructure is stretched too thin, and no one wants to solve any of this. Not that that’s a familiar scenario. This movie is best known for the spoiler in its final line of dialogue, but there’s a lot more to it: the lure (and uses) of suicide in a dystopia, haves and have-nots, the endgame of overcrowded cities, the passion and danger of knowledge. It blew my mind when I was a teenager. 

In re-viewings, I’ve developed the opinion that Soylent Green is a serious film masquerading as a broad genre picture, rather than the other way around. It has enormous beauty and frightening implications to its ideas, but it also has chase scenes and police drama, a couple of beefy-dude fights, plastic production design, and unnecessary pretty girls. It looks and quacks like its siblings on this list, and its ideas are really big, yet its seriousness is much more convincing. In his final role, Edward G. Robinson plays the gentle, luminous man he was in real life, rather than the dozens of cold gangsters he acted so well, while Charlton Heston sweats extensively.

Pretentiousness Score: 3/5 


Logan’s Run (1976) 

Hijinks ensue when the human race, confined to domes after a vague catastrophe, restricts its lifespan to 30 years, on penalty of messy death. Michael York is tasked to leave the domes and root out a group of disobedient citizens. A scantily clad Jenny Agutter is involved, as is a T.S. Eliot-quoting Peter Ustinov and a for-no-reason Farrah Fawcett. This film can fill up a bingo card pretty well: it has lasers, teleportation, a shopping mall as a primary filming location, an all-powerful computer, and nonexistent underclasses. 

Disclosure: I love this movie. Illogically, unapologetically do I love it. I love the idea of a society constructed around color-coded stages of aging, I love the campy Carrousel ritual, I love the dumb synthesizer music and the calm female computer voice and the bizarre shiny robot bellowing “Fish! Plankton! Sea greens! Proteins from the sea!” But I recognize that Logan’s Run belongs on this list, as a movie with philosophical pretensions and lame plastic models. Would we have a better society if people never got old? I really don’t know. Better by whose standards? And does that matter more or less than the cool outfits and pretty girls? It’s hard to tell, because the ideas remain a lower priority than the flashy production design.

Pretentiousness Score: 2/5 


Zardoz (1974) 

Hijinks ensue when toxic masculinity spins out of control in a future that’s half Planet of the Apes and half David Lynch. This film is so weird, and so complicated in its premise, that I don’t even want to summarize it—I just want to urge you to see it for yourself, although I send you toward it with all possible trigger warnings. Sean Connery wears a red diaper, suspenders, and a long braid, and that is not the strangest thing there is to see in the first five minutes. 

Some people hate this movie, or think it’s great, terrible fun (on the order of Showgirls), but I do not. I know no other movie like it, and I find it a fascinating product of a time when filmmakers had exceptional freedom and plenty of drugs. Besides, unlike the other four movies on this list, Zardoz rewards investment in its ideas. It’s strange, but it carries off its strangeness, if you can take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Pretentiousness Score: Jacques Derrida 

Pretentious 70s sci-fi films belong to a time when it was possible to see in the same glance good taste and terrible aesthetics, a decade during which a morally bankrupt president established the Environmental Protection Agency. Similarly, all of these movies boast committed actors and competent, even excellent directing in service of self-righteous ideas and outlandish storylines. In their contradictions, few of them have aged well, but then, few films become more interesting outside their original contexts, whether political or artistic. 

The renaissance in American cinema during the 1970s helps these films to transcend pulp. Sort of. But having a better sense of humor about them than the films have about themselves makes them doubly worthwhile: fun, and thoughtful, in the same glance.