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.