May. 8th, 2017

kareila: hidden between stacks of books (books)
[personal profile] kareila
I feel, after reading this book, like the movie Hidden Figures was the Disney fairy tale version of the story. It's a good movie, and the bones of the truth are there, but they took a lot of liberties with the material.

Obviously, they changed the timeline of events around so that the achievements of the three main characters would line up together. In reality, Dorothy Vaughan's quest to be promoted from acting supervisor to official supervisor took place in 1949 and 1950, and Mary Jackson completed her engineering course requirements in 1958.

The book also lends more focus to the timeline of the Civil Rights movement and how it lined up with the barriers that were coming down for the women of Langley, pointing out the sharp contrast between the more liberal federal policy and the hardline conservatism of the state of Virginia. One county in Virginia shut down its public school system for five years rather than obey integration orders.

The most jarring differences, though, were in characterization. Katherine Johnson never used the "colored" restrooms - the book does describe an embarrassing related incident, but that happened to Mary Jackson, and the resulting frustration was what led her to leave the computers and join an engineering group working in the wind tunnels. Katherine had only worked at Langley for two weeks when she was permanently assigned to the Flight Research Division, in 1953. Katherine's skin was light enough to pass, and by the time someone brought the restroom issue up with her, she simply refused to listen. By all accounts, whatever mistreatment she may have received, she simply ignored, and she never complained. Dorothy Vaughan was portrayed in the movie as some kind of mechanical genius, but in real life she never learned to drive a car. She certainly never led a charge of the full West Computing Group into the area where the IBM machines were set up - the girls were placed with individual engineering groups over time, and Vaughan was one of the last ones left behind when they shut down the unit and reassigned the remaining women in 1958. The author never indicated that Dorothy would have had to steal a library book to learn FORTRAN.

All that said, while the book is fascinating reading, it doesn't cohere into the sort of story that makes a compelling movie, so I understand why the screenwriters took the liberties they did. I just hope that people who love the movie are encouraged to pick up the book and learn the facts of what actually happened.

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