With brilliant acting, compelling storytelling, and timely subject matter, Hidden Figures is easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen. My 5 STAR review.
Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
5 out of 5 stars
Ever since I learned last summer that Hidden Figures would be coming to the big screen, I’ve been incredibly excited about this film. As I’ve said (so many times, it might be annoying) I’m a huge history buff and America during the Cold War is one of my favorite periods of time to learn about. The story of the Space Race between the U.S. and USSR during the second half of the 20th Century is such a well-known part of America’s national history. In school, we learned all about John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. We’ve seen the numerous documentaries, films, and various celebrations paying homage to these accomplishments.
However, we know much less about all the behind-the-scenes work of all the scientists needed to propel America into outer-space. And this is especially true of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who were critical to the success of the Space Program.
Hidden Figures tells the stories of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the brilliant African-American “computers” working at NASA during this time and responsible for calculating, applying, and in some cases *creating* the mathematics involved in the launch, flight, and landing plans.
I knew all of this as I began watching the film, so I felt pretty sure I’d know what to expect. Let me tell you, I was woefully unprepared for the way my emotions would be overwhelmed. As a Black, female social scientist, I’m not ignorant to the historical (and maybe even contemporary) barriers to equal opportunity and progress in academia and applied fields. But to see these three stories brought to screen with such brilliant acting and compelling storytelling really bowled me over.
I loved every, single moment of Hidden Figures, from beginning to end. I was moved to tears several times during the film, and cried for a solid 20 minutes after the movie finished (Katie can attest to this since I was texting my feels to her!). It broke my heart watching Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan deal with the indignities of the time (motivated by racism AND sexism), to be knocked down and have doors (literally) slammed in their faces. Yet, at the same time, these women maintained their optimism and kept on fighting to achieve their goals. They went the extra mile and didn’t complain. And, in time, there was some acknowledgement and achievement. It was this gift of hope for progress from Hidden Figures that really overwhelmed me. This film is MUSTWATCH for every American and deserving of every box office dollar, award nomination, and award win it has earned. Truth be told, it’s worthy of much, much more.
Hidden Figures takes place in 1961 Virginia with Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan working in Hampton, VA at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Things are very tense at NASA because the USSR has been able to successfully launch cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he becomes the first man to orbit the Earth. The U.S. isn’t making much headway in the Space Race. With increasing pressure from President John F. Kennedy, NASA needs a breakthrough. It’s in this context that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy are able to break some barriers.
“It’s not because we wear skirts… it’s because we wear glasses.”—Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson)
Hidden Figures begins with 10-year old Katherine, who is clearly a mathematical genius. Upon advice from the teachers at the local school, Katherine’s parents make arrangements so she can accept a scholarship to attend a special institute on West Virginia State College’s campus. Yes, she’s young, but when Katherine steps up to that chalkboard to solve a problem, she might as well be the instructor. This quality definitely informs Katherine’s life later on. While employed as one of NASA’s “colored computers”, Katherine is eventually assigned to assist the Space Task Group, a group of NASA engineers (all white men) who manage America’s manned spaceflight programs. At first, Katherine is expected to help check the math, but her work is very difficult. From her arrival at the group, Katherine is treated with disdain and hostility. Her intelligence and abilities are regularly questioned. Characteristic of the era of segregation, Katherine isn’t allowed to drink from the same coffee pot as the others. Since there isn’t a “colored restroom” on that side of the campus, when Katherine needs the facilities, she has to run all the way across the research center (with all of her work in her arms). But Katherine does this, stays much later than others, all to finish her work. But things come to a head in one of the most fantastic scenes of the film.
It’s a terribly rainy day and Katherine is making one of her treks to the restroom. When she arrives, her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)is incensed that Katherine has been taking these 40-minute breaks. Where has she been going??? And this is where Katherine/Taraji lets loose. In their white, male privilege, these engineers don’t understand how something even as simple as using the restroom is much more complicated for an African-American woman. Katherine/Taraji tells these men about themselves and storms out of the room, dripping wet, but head held high. (Incidentally, Ms. Henson was egregiously snubbed, because these are the scenes that Oscar nominations are made for!)
For me, that scene is indicative of a larger lesson. Despite their co-workers dismissing them, despite their African-American male counterparts underestimating them (evidenced by the above quote, Katherine’s response to Jim Johnson who is flabbergasted that NASA would employ female mathematicians), Katherine and her fellow “computers” soldier on. And in trying to live their lives, these become acts of defiance and catalysts for change. It’s fantastic!
“It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every color.”—Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)
So, Mary Jackson says this quote after meeting John Glenn; he and his fellow astronauts have come to Langley in order to begin their training. For me, this statement is more than a “YASSSSSSS honey!” moment—it also embodies Mary’s gumption and fierce determination.
As a result of Virginia’s refusal to abide by the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka, KA that schools be integrated, Mary is unable to attend Hampton High School for classes she would need to enter a NASA engineering program. Though Mary’s husband is skeptical of her ability to advance in the STEM field, she finds an ally in her NASA supervisor, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Polish-Jewish engineer, who escaped the Holocaust. He encourages Mary to pursue her engineering degree. When she is (rightly) concerned about the barriers, Zielinski calls upon Mary’s optimism: “I am a Polish Jew whose family was killed in the war. Now I am working on putting a man into space. This is a miracle!” With this encouragement, Mary remains steadfast, and using her awesome gifts of research and persuasion, she is able to convince a judge to grant her an order to attend classes (and essentially integrate) the local school.
Similarly, Katherine finds an unwitting ally in Al Harrison. He desegregates the NASA bathrooms (taking a crowbar to the “colored bathrooms” sigh). Irrespective of pushback from his lead engineers, Harrison brings Katherine in on meetings planning the spaceflights. Moreover, after Katherine confirms John Glenn’s landing coordinates (something that Glenn specifically requests that Katherine do) and the door is slammed in her face, Harrison invites Katherine into the command center to observe the first American orbit the Earth.
Let me make myself clear, I’m not talking about “White saviors,” and I definitely know that Mary and Katherine achieve their work and goals on their own merit and tireless work. At the same time (and the reason why this quote stands out most to me), I enjoy that Hidden Figures readily acknowledges the allies these brilliant, Black women acquire. When convention tells these White men to say “no”, they say “yes”, and in doing so, help to support progress.
“I’m not accepting reassignment unless I bring my ladies with me… I can’t do it alone. My gals are ready. They can do the work.”—Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)
Forgive my brief tangent, but my sister is the president of her college Black Student Union. This January, after their retreat, she posted something to twitter that has stuck with me: “It’s not every time argue with white man. Sometimes you become those things that you need for your community.” For me, this sentiment is foundational to Dorothy Vaughan’s character.
Throughout the film, Dorothy has seen the writing on the wall that her position (and that of her fellow computers) is tenuous. This is even more evident when NASA buys a IBM 7090 electronic computer, capable of running through 24,000 calculations per second (!!!). However, Dorothy realizes that they’re going to need someone to run the computer and starts training herself and the other ladies in the FORTRAN programming language. (The process of Dorothy getting the textbook from the library is fraught with the evils of segregation, from the security guard escorting her and her sons from the “whites only” section, to the trip home in the back of the bus.)
Quickly, those in charge of the IBM 7090 realize that Dorothy is the only person who knows how to properly run it. The quote above is taken from a scene where Dorothy is told about being reassigned to run the calculations needed for Glenn’s flight. She could have taken the position without a second thought. But after learning that the “colored calculators” will soon be fired, she refuses to be reassigned unless the other women can join her.
Yes, allies are important, but what might even be more important are the institutions of support within the Black community. The friendship between Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary, the heart of Hidden Figures, is a prime example of this. Professionally, these women lift each other up, with the motto that progress for one is progress for all. (It’s Dorothy who recommends Katherine for the position with the Space Task Group!) These three take care of each other in their personal lives too, from a girls night of drinking, dancing, and venting, to encouraging Katherine to open her heart to a good man and standing by her side at the wedding. Each of these women find support from their partners, parents, children, and church. And that sort of personal edification is so important. When the world is constantly lashing at you and knocking you down, you need those friendly faces and words of encouragement to fortify you and help pry open doors of opportunity. I really love watching Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary have these positive experiences in their community.
Hidden Figures is the story of the women previously overlooked by history and their development of mathematical processes that didn’t yet exist, all for the patriotic purpose of American achievement. I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again: this film is MUSTWATCH for every American, and we can start with every middle school/high school across the country.
On a more personal note, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan (and women like them) made it possible for me to be able to do what I love. I stand on their shoulders with awe and so much gratitude.
Hidden Figures is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in my life, and I’m thankful to Margot Lee Shetterly, Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, cast, crew, and other creators for bringing this phenomenal story to the big screen. BRAVO!