Hidden Figures in conjunction with Loving provide a history lesson that everyone should be aware of. The two films take place in roughly the same timeframe in Virginia and show what life was like in a segregated state not so long ago. In addition, Hidden Figures reminds us of what women had to face in the workplace prior to the equal rights movement. The film’s story of how three brilliant young African-American women helped the USA send men into space and win the race with the Russians is nothing short of inspiring. These women had so much to overcome yet persevered and succeeded.
We are first introduced to Katherine Gobel Johnson as a child math genius in West Virginia. A jump in time and she (Taraji P. Henson) and her friends (Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson) work in the “Colored Computer” division of the Langley research center in Hampton Roads Virginia. It is called the computer division because this was a time when people who were really good at math on adding machines were called computers. The film takes place in the early 60s, everything is completely segregated in Virginia and NASA’s Space Task Group is no exception. The Engineer in charge, Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) needs someone with knowledge of Analytic Geometry and Johnson (then Gobel) is sent over. To say her reception by a bunch of white guy engineers was frosty would be an understatement.
These three women all had brilliant minds and despite continual discrimination slowly become appreciated by some in NASA. Kevin Costner’s character is under intense pressure to get an American into space after the Russians launched both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. He is focused on calculating all of the requirements for launch, orbit and reentry and he comes to appreciate Johnson, the “human computer” and breaks down barriers so that he can maximize her knowledge to achieve his goals. Nothing is easy for her in this environment, including her having to run 1-½ miles to the “colored” bathroom every time she needs to relieve herself and Harrison helps remove these obstacles. He also showcases Johnson to the military brass and ultimately John Glen refuses to go into space without her calculations which proved to be critical to his mission’s success.
Dorothy Vaughn realizes that her group of African-American mathematicians is going to be rendered useless as the first IBM mainframes are brought in and teaches herself Fortran and how to use the computer. She is able to retrain all of her employees and they become instrumental in the successful conversion to computers. Mary Jackson breaks barriers in her pursuance of an Engineering degree having to convince a judge to allow her to take the required courses at an all white high school.
Everyone should see this movie to appreciate the history as well as the present day implications. I think my only critique of the film is the lack of character development of the Vaughn and Jackson characters as well as Johnson’s husband Jim played by an under-used Mahershala Ali. It would have been nice to have them as flushed out as Johnson. The acting is solid by Henson, Costner, Spencer and Ali but Janelle Monae really excells as Mary Jackson. It has been a great year for her with parts in Moonlight and Hidden Figures and she shined bright in both. The score by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams is great and I still have “Runnin” repeating in my head. See this movie!