If one were to go strictly based off representations in film and television, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world of computer programming/hacking/coding is primarily a man’s sport. The most recent example of this misguided notion would be the Oscar-friendly Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game,” which centers around a tortured-genius codebreaker.
And yet, Gillian Jacobs of “Community” is out to debunk the myth that the world of computing is strictly a boy’s club. “The Queen of Code,” Jacobs’ directorial debut, is primarily about Grace Hopper, a crack coding expert who, the film argues, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It’s a terrific and surprising look not only at Hopper’s indelible and funny personality — dry and witty, she was a former mathematics professor at Vassar and she made a hell of an impression on “The David Letterman Show” — but also how the immense contributions of women during times of American social upheaval have largely been whitewashed by history, or, in some cases, ignored outright. Jacobs, a self-professed history nerd, took it upon herself to shed light on the issue and tell Hopper’s story as best she could.
“There’s so much in the news right now about the terrible state of women and people of color in tech. And it really blew my mind to realize women had been there in the very beginning and helped define what we think of as a programmer,” Jacobs told re/code in a recent interview. She also expresses grave concern at the historical steamrolling of female innovators during key passages in American history, and hopes that her doc will shed some light on what is an unjustly ignored issue. “The erasure of women was happening in real time.”
The film begins during World War II, where there was a call-to-arms for women to take up what had been, until that point, the socially-assigned roles of men. This led to the creation of the world’s first pre-tech “computers,” which were actually massive, pre-assembled teams of women collectively calculating ballistics trajectories. These “computers” acted as a sort of mechanized unit, and the film argues that they were as instrumental in winning the war as the troops on the frontlines. Hopper, who was rejected from military service after failing to pass the physical exam, was assigned to one of these units at Harvard, and Jacobs’ commitment in telling her story is truly admirable. Hopper was a steely, resolutely determined woman, strong because she had no other choice. She was also, as I wrote earlier, strangely funny and marched to the beat of her own drum: a point that is not lost on the film’s director:
“She didn’t identify herself as a hippie at all. But I found out these weird personality quirks,” Jacobs says. “In pictures, she seems like a very severe woman in horn-rimmed glasses. But she was really surprising. She loved to collect dolls and figurines, and at the end of her life she had three apartments full of dolls and figurines and tchotchkes.”
There’s more, check out the whole 16-minute doc below: