Title: Hidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures
This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school. And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay. When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.
Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier. As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.
All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals. Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays. Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.
A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.