Hidden Figures

 

            This is a heart-warming tale of three black women who overcame many obstacles to rise in the ranks of NASA in the late 1950's and early 1960's, just in time to help put together the technology for John Glenn's historic flight orbiting the Earth.  Best of all, it's “based on true events.”

            Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a child prodigy mathematician who managed a college education at a time when few black women were afforded the opportunity.  She also landed a job at NASA, but was relegated to a “black-women-only” division of clerks, as was her friend Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who was effectively the supervisor, but without the pay or recognition.  They both carpooled with Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who had engineering skills, but not the prerequisite training, because it wasn't available to her.  Each of these women, in their own ways, fought for inclusiveness in the white-male-dominated world of NASA in those days.

            Katherine Johnson finally got noticed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the Project Head, because he needed someone who could test the math of the people he already had, including Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the chief mathematician, who is portrayed as always setting up roadblocks to Katherine's participation:  she doesn't have the credentials, she doesn't have the security clearance, it's not protocol.  Katherine is portrayed as having to put up with the humiliation of traversing ½ mile across campus just to be able to go to the “Colored Women”'s bathroom.  Mr. Harrison, demanding to know the reason for her several extended absences during the day, finally realizes the dilemma, and puts an end to segregated bathrooms inside NASA, because their task is so urgent they need everyone's undivided attention.  “We'll all get there together or none of us will get there.”

            Dorothy Vaughan struggled with her boss, Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst), first over not being acknowledged for her de facto work as supervisor, then, when they brought in the big IBM mainframe, over who was going to be trained as programmers.  Dorothy is portrayed here as kind of sneaking into the computer room after hours to learn how to operate it herself, and also studying up on Fortran (the programming code required at the time) at the public library.  In the end, Dorothy could get the big computer running when the IBM techies couldn't.  And Dorothy's clandestine training of the “girls” in the clerk pool meant that they all had the particular skills needed to integrate the computer into the operation.  And she told the IBM installers that she needed the help of her entire department, so one of the inspiring moments in the movie is watching them all march into the computer room together, and be integrated into the ongoing launch project.

            Mary Jackson, for her part, had to sue the County for the right to take the requisite credentials course at the previously all-white school.  When she did, she became the first female African American engineer on NASA's team.

            It's a stirring story of good, talented people overcoming prejudice and rising to important positions in their chosen fields.  But “Hidden Figures” also shows the human side of each of these women, as well, from child-rearing to churchgoing to a little romance for the widowed Katherine.  (Too bad the “Colonel” who courts her is wearing two gold leafs on each shoulder, an impossible U.S. military insignia and therefore a distracting little goof.)

            The audience cheered not only after this film, but applauded during certain critical moments.  Be sure to stay through the credits, as photographs are displayed of the “real” women portrayed in the movie.  Hooray for competence trumping prejudice.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you seen competence trump prejudice?  When have you seen prejudice exclude competence?

2)                  Are there professions that are still less available to people of color?

3)                  Are there professions that are still less available to women?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association