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Hidden Figures

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Joined: 30 Apr 2005
Posts: 2371
Location: L.A., California

PostPosted: Sat Feb 11, 2017 5:16 am    Post subject: Hidden Figures Reply with quote

'Hidden Figures' director/writer, Theodore Melfi's, powerful comment

'Hidden Figures" earned three Oscar nominations -- best picture,
supporting actress and adapted screenplay. The film was co-written by
Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi. Here, the two describe
their experiences with the film, both separately and again together.

The journey of making 'Hidden Figures' has shown me the automatic
privilege that all white men are afforded in America in 2017 and in any
and every year before that.

This became crystal clear to me while I was traveling with actress Octavia
Spencer and her stylist Val Noble. We were returning to the States from a
screening of the film in London and we stopped in the first class lounge
at Heathrow Airport. Octavia and Val sat down on a couch and I left to buy
lipstick for a friend at the duty-free shop.

When I returned, a half an hour later, Octavia and Val were in the exact
same spot. I noticed they had not been served. Nothing. No coffee, no tea,
nothing. The moment I arrived at the couch, a server waltzed right up to
me and asked, "May I get you something, sir?" It was then that I
noticed the looks on Octavia's and Val's faces: sadness crossed with
familiarity. And Octavia said two words. Two words I will never forget
for the rest of my life: "You see?"

And I saw. In that relatively ordinary moment, I saw my privilege. I saw
their disadvantage. I saw endless years of bias and unfairness and
mistreatment and suffering. Octavia Spencer can't get a cup of coffee.
I can. Period.

And so 'Hidden Figures' is no longer just a movie for me. It's a mission.

Read both Allison Schroeder’s and Theodore Melfi's entire article: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-mn-0209-on-writing-hidden-figures-20170209-story.html

Last edited by vu on Sat Feb 11, 2017 5:19 am; edited 1 time in total
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Joined: 30 Apr 2005
Posts: 2371
Location: L.A., California

PostPosted: Sat Feb 11, 2017 5:18 am    Post subject: Hidden Figures, the book Reply with quote

Astronomers at Harvard, mathematicians at NASA: women who made space
exploration possible.



Ladies Who Launch: Women Who Opened the Door to Space Exploration
DEC. 31, 2016

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the
By Dava Sobel
Illustrated. 324 pp. Viking. $30.

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women
M athematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
By Margot Lee Shetterly
346 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

** Also: HIDDEN FIGURES: Young Readers' Edition = $7.99 paperback

I love to discuss science, especially mathematics and physics, in their
most abstract forms, far removed from mundane human concerns. I love to
riff on the origin of the universe, black holes, space and time. By
contrast, I am not at all happy to discuss gender, which is not remotely
my area of expertise. My feeling: Let me get on with what I do well, and
let others get on with what they do well. Two illuminating recent books
manage to convey a similar sentiment, focused on the uninhibited love of
science and math, while still gracefully incorporating the thorny topic of
women in science. “The Glass Universe,” by Dava Sobel, recounts the
previously neglected history of the women astronomers at the Harvard
College Observatory near the turn of the 20th century, while “Hidden
Figures,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, does justice to the African-American
women mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the mid-20th century.

I was only a little bit more familiar with the history in “The Glass
Universe.” Here’s the (inaccurate) version I learned: Edward Charles
Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to 1919,
hired a gaggle of women, known fondly as Pickering’s Harem. Pickering
was fed up with the incompetence of his “computers,” the common
parlance for humans who computed, in this case, crunching the numbers to
arrive at astronomical calculations. In frustration, he supposedly shouted
to his all-male computers, “My Scotch maid could do a better job.” Now
maybe the phrasing is impolitic, but that was the version going around. So
he fired all the male computers and hired his Scottish maid, Williamina
Fleming, who indeed did a better job and for a fraction of the pay. Over
time, this story, clearly apocryphal in places, has been sanitized.
Reference to the expression “harem” is gradually deleted, as though
cleansing the past with an antiseptic of the present is good policy.

In the historically accurate version Dava Sobel tells in her careful and
detailed style, the past is neither sanitized nor embellished. Guided by a
historian’s sacred principles, she lets the story emerge from the
thorough research she documents. Sobel does not condemn or excuse or
flatter or even analyze the characters. She does not interpret the past
through the lens of the present. She barely interprets the past at all.
Even her language emulates the phrasing of the sources, as though
modernizing her account would distract readers, reminding them of the
interloper who stands between them and sheer documentation. The result is
a far more accurate telling, of course, and a much subtler one.

Pickering is portrayed as an extremely fair character with great respect
for his women computers and a lifelong investment in their success. He
hired the Scottish émigré Williamina Fleming, a former teacher, as a
maid after her husband abandoned her in a “delicate condition.”
Recognizing her capabilities, he reassigned her to help at the
observatory. Eventually she oversaw the hiring of dozens of women who
performed the astronomical calculations. Sobel explains, “While it would
be unseemly, Pickering conceded, to subject a lady to the fatigue, not to
mention the cold in winter, of telescope observing, women with a knack for
figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did a
credit to the profession.” Though to be clear, some of the women defied
the barrier of the observatory itself and determinedly spent cold, hard
nights turning the metal dome, climbing ladders not meant for “ladies”
and operating the telescopes. The work was at times physically toilsome
and, it has to be admitted, brutally tedious for stretches of unthinkable

The first Ph.D.s in astronomy at Harvard went to women under Pickering’s
mentorship, and he fought for the advancement of all the women under his
charge. Yet he did maintain unequal, gender-based pay conventions. We love
to marvel at the paltry sums despite our inability to calibrate for
inflation: 25 cents an hour. On this, Sobel includes a perfect passage
from a journal in which Williamina Fleming airs apparently her single
complaint about Director Pickering, for whom she clearly had warm
sentiments. Fleming writes: “He seems to think that no work is too much
or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the
hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told
that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand. . . .
Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of
as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts.
And this is considered an enlightened age!” (Bear in mind that the entry
was written before women secured the right to vote.) Her salary was $1,500
a year, in contrast with that of the male assistants, who had not been
fired in the way I previously thought, but rather garnered $2,500 per
year. And later, in frustration over the issue of her meager salary, she
confesses, “I am told that my services are very valuable to the
Observatory, but . . . I feel that my work cannot be of much

Don’t deride Pickering. He was generous, committed beyond
professionalism, fair-minded and, in context, extremely open to progress.
His feminism, if I can stretch the political boundaries of the term, was
not theoretical. It’s unclear if he could have imagined a woman
transcending certain barriers. But when he saw talent and accomplishment,
he simply recognized those qualities. He wanted to nourish ability, to see
credit properly attributed and, above all else, thereby to advance
astronomy. Science profited from the contributions of Henrietta Swan
Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne and Antonia
Maury. They detected, classified and cataloged several hundred thousand
stars and extrapolated crucial discoveries about our universe in the
process. The significance of Leavitt’s work, as an example, can be
recognized in the results of a more publicly acclaimed astronomer. Edwin
Hubble leveraged Leavitt’s law on the behavior of variable stars to
gauge distances to certain nebulae. He was then able to confidently
conclude that some smudges in the sky were actually entire galaxies,
thereby extending the geography of the universe to millions of
light-years. We now ascertain that the observable universe exceeds 90
billion light-years across.

There are, as should be expected, accounts — very interesting accounts
— of a heavily reinforced glass ceiling and its occasional, wafer-thin
cracks in “The Glass Universe” (did Dava Sobel intend this pun?), the
title a reference to the tens of thousands of fragile photographic glass
plates used to capture the stars that migrated across the mound of sky
above the observatory. These underpaid women employees were blatantly
overworked. But they loved their work. Astronomy was the subject they
chose for themselves and their dedication, as conveyed in this book, was
beyond reproach. They confronted scarlet fever, “grippe,” deafness,
loneliness and destitution. Still, they were tenacious, as is well
represented in a quotation from Annie Jump Cannon: “May I be led into a
useful, busy life. I am not afraid of work. I long for it.”

Unlike Sobel, Margot Lee Shetterly does not play the austere historian in
“Hidden Figures.” She is right there at the beginning with evocative
memories of her childhood, visiting her father — an engineer turned
climate scientist — at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.
Shetterly says, “As a child . . . I knew so many African-Americans
working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what
black folks did.” She describes the African-American women computers,
many of whom she knew, calculating orbital trajectories in the earliest
days of NASA, just after the name had been changed from the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA.

In this story too, pay inequity shaped lives and families and inherited
opportunities. Here too women’s colleges played an important role, as
did historically black colleges. Here too we hear the anticipated accounts
— again no less outrageous or provocative for their inevitability — of
bias and limits. There are the added humiliations of segregated schools
and neighborhoods, designated dining tables and “colored” bathrooms,
all colluding to tighten the shackles of racism.

Still, neither book is motivated by bitterness. “Hidden Figures,”
which has also been adapted into a feature film that opens this month, is
clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine
transcendence and camaraderie. The story warmly conveys the dignity and
refinements of these women. They defied barriers for the privilege of
offering their desperately needed technical abilities.

Juxtapose the intellectual status of the women of NASA against the
historical context, before the major advances of the civil rights
movement, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The East Area Computing
pool, which began hiring women in the 1930s, outgrew the space allocated
as it expanded to include hundreds. The dozens of black women engineers
and mathematicians (though most of the women were given lesser titles than
their qualifications merited, such as “assistant” or “computer”)
received a separate room of clacking machines. They were the women of West
Area Computing. Integration across gender and race began naturally as
people worked together to solve the problems of aeronautics and space

Shetterly says, “Women . . . had to wield their intellects like a
scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low
expectations.” Yet they defied low expectations based on gender and race
with composure. She says of the most famous West Area computer, Katherine
Johnson: “She didn’t close her eyes to the racism that existed; she
knew just as well as any other black person the tax levied upon them
because of their color. But she didn’t feel it in the same way. She
wished it away, willed it out of existence inasmuch as her daily life was
concerned.” Katherine Johnson was sent to the Flight Research Division
at the pivotal moment that NASA turned to space travel. She performed the
essential trajectory calculations that ensured John Glenn’s successful
boost into orbit by an Atlas rocket. She went on to contribute to the
legendary Apollo 11 mission, in particular to the safe return of the
astronauts to Earth.

Throughout both books I was struck by the obviousness of the importance of
work, either domestic or professional — the importance of contributing,
of choosing a destiny, of being good at something, of participating in
history, and the enraging pointlessness of small-minded repressions of a
soaring and generous human urge. The women scientists of “The Glass
Universe” and “Hidden Figures” were affected by external social
pressures, and yes, that in turn created inevitable internal pressures.
But they transcended those forces to commune with space, and thereby
redefined themselves and those around them. The authors of these two fine
books help us understand the socially transformative power of a defiant
dedication to something greater than our mundane human predicament.
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