I am so conflicted about this movie. The reviews were uniformly good, it picked up a lot of Oscar nominations, and I quite enjoyed it. Then I read a little about the real story …
I don’t usually demand a really high degree of historical accuracy in a film. I will tolerate quite a bit of dramatic license. But it turns out that much, and I might even say more, of this story is made up than is real. It concerns three black women working as mathematicians at NASA in Houston in the days of the Mercury missions. The main thrust of the story is that because of racism, the contributions of these women were ignored or belittled, and that they had to endure abuse every day at work. And according to one of the women herself, it just wasn’t true. She said she didn’t feel racism from her colleagues, and was in fact accepted as a member of the team. Now, she acknowledged that racism existed in Texas in 1961. Boy, did it ever; I grew up down the road from Houston, attended an all-white school, and thought that three rest rooms, for MEN, WOMEN, and COLORED was the norm. There was horrible racism. It’s just that she herself didn’t feel its sting while working at NASA.
The emotional and rage-inducing center of the film concerns one of the women having to race across the Johnson Space Center to the only rest room for colored women. It just makes you want to grab some NASA administrator by the neck and shake him until he sees reason. And it didn’t happen. There were two different stories in real life. For one of the women, there was no problem. She just assumed she could go to the ladies’ room, and that was that. When someone complained she just ignored it, and it was never mentioned again. NASA was in fact fairly well integrated as far back as 1958, when it was still NACA.
The defenders of the film say that it’s okay to twist the facts and even make up stuff in the service of some deeper reality. As I said, there is no question that there was deep racism in my home state, and telling about it is certainly a great thing to do. But I’m very uneasy about just making things up. Also, if you believe this movie, NASA would have foundered and John Glenn would have burned up without the contributions of these women, and many other black calculators. It is certainly true that without all these behind-the-scenes people the space program would have been in deep trouble. Back then, a lot of calculations had to be done by hand, things that a computer would easily handle in nanoseconds these days. And you couldn’t just grab someone off the street for those jobs. You had to be a damn good number cruncher, and these women were.
What pisses me off is that I think the real story would have been much better than the fiction we get here. Damn, it was a great story, waiting to be told, and the writer had to fuck it up with a lot of things that just weren’t true.