Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of African-American women working at NASA. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.
***WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW***
Set in the 1960s, when racial segregation was still State law across the South, three African-American women find themselves in the middle of the road with a broken down vehicle. When a police officer approaches them, instead of feeling reassured and safe, they seem apprehensive. The three women have to reassure the officer that they work for NASA, which at this time had a great following in the race for space. Dorothy is able to fix the car, and the officer escorts them all the way to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The three women work in the West Area Computers division, with Katherine as a mathematician, Mary as an inspiring engineer, and Dorothy as an acting supervisor for the group of African-American woman “computers.” After the Soviet Union successfully launches Sputnik I, the director of the Space Task Force at Langley, Al Harrison, is directed to get American astronauts into space.
Katherine’s mathematical skills lead her to get promoted and be the first African-American woman to work with Harrison and his group of all white males engineers at the Task Force. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the head engineer, resents Katherine being assigned to double-check his computations. Over time, Katherine gets Harrison’s attention after solving one of his complex mathematical equations. She only has one altercation with Harrison when he confronts her for leaving her position for long periods of time during the day, to which she responds by pointing out that she has to walk far to get to the nearest colored restroom. After hearing this, Harrison proceeds to tear down the sign of “Colored Restrooms” and informs everyone that segregation is not what NASA stands for. When she argues with Stafford about being able to attend high-security meetings that would be of great help to obtain firsthand the data that is rapidly changing before the space launch. With that information, she is able to create a practical equation to allow the capsule safe re-entry and landing at a specific point.
Meanwhile, Dorothy is trying to get an official promotion to supervisor, but her white manager Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) shuts her down. Mary tries to pursue a career in engineering, but learns that she must first become qualified at an educational facility. She goes to court and persuades a judge to let her attend night classes at the University of Virginia, who up until that point was an all white school, to get her engineering degree. Moreover, when Dorothy learns that the impending installation of an IBM 7090 computer threatened the jobs of her and her co-workers, she begins to teach herself Formula Translations from a book she takes from the public library. She also trains her co-workers the programming language. When she gets the IBM machine to work, she and her group are re-assigned to the IBM team.
When the IBM begins to run smoothly, Harrison reluctantly removes Katherine from his team. But when the Friendship 7 spacecraft begins to have discrepancies in the electronic calculations made by the IBM, John Glenn, the spaceman, requests Katherine by name to check them. After quickly making her computations, John Glenn gets the green light to go into orbit, however, when he is on his third orbit around Earth he begins to have some problems with his heat shields. With the help of Katherine in the control room, they guide Glenn to manually operate the controls to protect his shield. He successfully re-enters and lands in the ocean, making him the first American to orbit space.
At the end of the film, Dorothy is promoted to supervisor of the programming department for her group and other white women. Katherine is assigned to Analysis and Computation Division and Mary receives an engineering degree and position at NASA.
Overall, this movie showcases the important influence women of color have had in American history. I, for one, had no idea of the amazing work these three women made to thrust the United States as the front-runner in the race for space. If you are into learning more about a part of the history of the U.S. that you didn’t learn in high school, then this movie is for you.
“HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)-brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.”