Until now, it was a little-known fact that NASA relied on African-American women mathematicians, known as “computers,” to help the USA successfully win the space race against Russia. “Hidden Figures” rights that wrong, bringing the ladies’ accomplishments to the screen. The film follows the real-life career trajectories of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) at NASA in the early 1960s.
In 1957, the space race between the US and Russia began when the USSR launched Sputnik I and II, the first spy satellites. In April 1961, just three months after President Kennedy’s inauguration, Russia sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space for the first human orbit of the earth. That upped the ante for NASA engineers in Langley, Virginia.
Space Task Group leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) doesn’t want to be “last in a two-man race.” Instead, he wants accuracy, results, and thinking “beyond the numbers.” When he requests an advanced mathematician, NASA turns to the West Computing group. That staff is 100% female and 100% African-American. Their temporary supervisor, Dorothy, says Katherine is the one for the job.
Katherine finds herself on an all-white team. Harrison has a reputation for not being easy to work with. But, Katherine finds him more receptive and open-minded than most of the engineers. Institutionalized racism greets Katherine on her second day on the team when a separate, empty coffee pot labeled “colored” appears. Her accuracy and skills irritate Harrison’s second in command, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), not so much because she is African-American but because she is a woman.
Meanwhile, Mary and Dorothy face their own career choices. Mary works with a European engineer who encourages her to apply to be NASA’s first female engineer. Dorothy has been performing supervisory duties without the pay or title. When NASA hires IBM to bring in a mainframe computer to do calculations, Dorothy accurately predicts her team of computers will be obsolete unless they learn to work with technology.
Even as these women deal with challenges, they contribute to the nation’s space program. When the seven men chosen to be astronauts come to visit, the computers must stand separately, segregated from the rest of NASA’s white workforce. Lieut. Col. John Glenn (Glen Powell) crosses the racial divide to greet the women. Glenn will rely on their skills (particularly Katherine’s) to see that his flights are safe and successful.
Based on the novel by Margot Shetterly, “Hidden Figures’” script by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder operates on four levels. First, it details the challenges faced and overcome by three real-life pioneers. Second, it looks at racial discrimination both in the NASA workforce and in the American South at the time of the Civil Rights movement. From restrooms to lunch rooms to public libraries, the three heroines must deal with “separate and not equal.” Third, it shows gender discrimination. Many of the men the ladies encounter, from a state trooper to the National Guard colonel who wants to date Katherine, express disbelief that women could possibly understand math and science. Last, but not least, the film looks at the space race. “Hidden Figures” captures America’s fascination with the space program at a time when people gathered around TVs and radios to hear the latest launches.
Melfi chose three excellent leading ladies. Henson’s Katherine has intelligence, grace and fortitude. As the never shy Mary, Monae provides many of the more humorous moments in “Hidden Figures.” And Spencer’s Dorothy is the mother hen, protective and proud of her team.
The supporting performances are equally strong. Although Costner’s Harrison was created by combining qualities of multiple NASA leaders, the actor makes sure fairmindedness and sincerity are hallmarks of his character. Powell as Glenn contributes good humor while Kimberly Quinn as Harrison’s secretary and Kirsten Dunst as supervisor Vivian Mitchell exhibit cool exteriors and condescending attitudes. Unlike his performances on TV’s “Big Bang Theory,” Parsons is very serious here. His engineer’s fear of being second best to Katherine comes through in passive aggressive moves.
Costume designer Renee Kalfus and her team looked at early 1960s Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs for inspiration. Since the real-life Katherine (now age 98) wore homemade clothes to her job at NASA, they made sure that character’s clothes were all handmade.
Producer and musician Pharrell Williams contributed the majority of the songs on the film’s soundtrack. Their lyrics parallel and emphasize the action. Williams’ rhythms perfectly capture the 1960s sound, blending well with songs by Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
“Hidden Figures” successfully combines history and entertainment while also looking at America’s gender and race issues. While it would be nice to think those issues are things of the past, 2016’s presidential election revealed many attitudes (and Russian ulterior motives) haven’t progressed very far.
Like the recent film “Queen of Katwe,” “Hidden Figures” shows there are many talented, smart people who, if given the opportunity, can do great things. Both films reveal that intelligence, kindness, and skills are not determined by race, gender, or belief systems. The only limits that do exist are those imposed by economics or by others out of fear/ jealousy. As “Hidden Figures” demonstrates, when people are given the opportunity to contribute their best, the sky has no limit.