In the early days of the Space Race, when the USA and the USSR both worked to be the first in space, there was limited technology. The only ‘computer’ available was a person who excelled in math and could handle very complex calculations. The math experts and engineers who ran NASA in the early 1960’s were brilliant people. Almost all of then were men, and even more were White. That’s why this true story of three Black women is so outstanding.
When a Black person (‘Negro’ was the phrase used back then) was the best ‘computer’, and that person was also a woman – well that could lead to whole lot of trouble. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a complete master of math, and could calculate complex re-entry points down a few hundred yards. She was needed for her skills in doing the computations, but the NASA engineers all looked down on her. She was not like them, so they did not think she was quite as good…
Katherine also had two good friends at the NASA facility, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Mary had the skills and the desire to become an engineer, but the schooling was not available to ‘colored folks’. That is, until she challenged the local rulings and was permitted to take night classes at the all-White school. Dorothy was the leader of several talented Black women who were on staff at NASA. Yet she was not permitted to have the title of Supervisor. The White office manager Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) would not help Dorothy to advance, because she was Black, and therefore, unqualified.
Katherine had to face countless times when bigotry and low expectations hindered her progress. The chief of the lab was Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). He would give Katherine work to review that was incomplete because sections had been removed, since she did not have the security clearance. But when the Manager of the NASA facility Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) found out how smart Katherine was, he made sure she got all the information that she would need. He even removed the limitations of ‘Colored’ bathrooms, so that Katherine would not need to run across the campus.
Also, the lab obtained its first IBM mainframe computer system, and Dorothy Vaughan had been teaching herself how to code programs on the new device. She became an expert and she was in charge of several other women and became a real Supervisor. Mary Jackson earned her degree in engineering and also continued to work at NASA on the space program.
Seeing that this is a true story of real people involved at the early stages of NASA, this movie shows the struggles that many of these women had to overcome. Before any Equal Rights laws were passed, these smart and powerful women showed that they were equal to the White men. They did that just by being able to perform at their highest levels. They did not allow the racism and sexism to fester and make them bitter. The fought back in the best way they knew how – they excelled at what they did.
The three main characters are played by three fantastic actresses: Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson. They all handle the character with grace and with dignity, even when the White world around them is harsh and cruel. They all show a deep courage and persistence to achieve great things. Also, Kevin Costner is a great addition, because he shows an understanding that success shows no ‘Color Line’. His character would not allow bigotry to stand in the way of getting the best results.
“Hidden Figures” does a terrific job in bringing to light a little-known aspect of the early days of NASA. The social norms of that era were broken so that some very talented Black women could have a chance to make a big difference in the success of the program. It is great story to tell, and it does it in a quiet, dignified manner.