“Hidden Figures” is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name and follows three black women– Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson– who worked in NASA’s Langley, Virginia computer department. They worked in a segregated basement but not on computers. These black engineers were referred to as “human computers”, calculating complex calculus equations by hand. Even the mathematical formulas were hidden in a sense, to be discovered by these three remarkable women. They were among the first NASA employees to understand the power and capabilities of a massive IBM mainframe brought to NASA to assist in America’s first space launch.
Known as “human computers”, we follow these three intellects as they painfully rise through the ranks of NASA facing hurdles at every step, even under the watchful and largely sympathetic boss, Al Harrison (well played by Kevin Costner). They face the dual barriers of sex and race, while attempting to balance work and family life as well.
This untold story of the unsung heroes–the brains behind the pioneering Space Race —is the history of hidden figures who contributed to the pivotal moments in science and technology after Russia had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin on Sputnik.
The opening scene of “Hidden Figures” reveals the precarious situation and tightrope dance that these three friends have to maneuver. Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, and knows how to fix their car which breaks down on the way to NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who wants to stand up to the police officer who seems to be questioning why they are traveling on the highway at all. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) tries to signal to her friend to follow the playbook and let the officer take over, which he does, leading them to NASA. The tone is set for tiptoeing in a white man’s world.
At NASA we see Dorothy fight to be a supervisor, Mary struggle to attain the necessary educational certification to become an engineer, and Katherine receive the credit for her critical mathematical calibrations which enable NASA to launch and land safely. Even as Katherine continues to outperform her male colleagues, she still must drink coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and have to walk 20 minutes each way to the building where the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is located.
Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story and Taraji Henson chews up each scene with great humor and her signature feistiness. Her colleagues Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are equally dazzling and the ensemble acting is impeccable. Hidden Figures is notable for being a disavowal of easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.
“Hidden Figures” is a marvelously entertaining and important film. Like the story of the Bletchley Circle of women codebreakers on the Enigma project during World War II (see my October 26, 2015 review of the Bletchley Park museum, “Bletchley Park: An Enigmatic Exploration” and my January 15, 2015 review of “Imitation Game”–Breaking the Code Breaker”. “Hidden Figures” is also an education in what our history books have failed to tell us.
Note: Katherine Goble Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans, on November 24, 2015 by President Obama. She was 97 at the time and is still living and active in STEM, a nonprofit program to encourage girls to study science and technology.