Released on Dec. 25, 2016, “Hidden Figures” is a biographical drama film directed by Theodore Melfi. The film, based on the non-fiction novel of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows the story of three African-American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s.
The lead role of Katherine Johnson (physicist and mathematician) is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, while the supporting roles of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
The film opens with a flashback sequence into the background story of Katherine’s life. As a young girl, she appears to be light-years ahead of her peers academically, and excels into college at a very young age. Then, the film fast forwards to Katherine’s adult life in Hampton, Virginia.
She and her co-workers, Dorothy and Mary, are stuck on the side of the road dealing with car troubles. Suddenly, a Caucasian police officer appears on the scene and automatically begins to question the women. The officer’s tone insinuates both his racist and sexist attitude toward the women and is especially surprised to learn that they work at NASA.
The women experience horrendous challenges as a result of similar racist and sexist prejudices from the majority of their male, Caucasian co-workers throughout the entire film.
At NASA, the women originally work as “computers” in the Langley Research Center. They work in the West Area because the center is segregated. The film depicts a recent Russian satellite launch that was successful, and there is a tremendous amount of tension at NASA because of the stress of competing with Russia and sending Americans into space. Thus, Katherine’s supervisor, Ms. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), directs her to a space task group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).
She is the first African-American woman to be a part of the team, which is quite a big deal for the center.
Originally there to check over work done by engineers, Katherine soon becomes a force to be reckoned with because of her extreme intelligence. Sadly, she must deal with racist and sexist attitudes from the majority of her male co-workers, especially engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).
In a string of eye-opening scenes, Katherine is shown running to the West Area, a half mile away, to use the restroom. She must do this because there are no “colored” restrooms in the building she now works in.
One day, she is confronted by Harrison because she is gone for about 30 minutes. Publicly, he asks her where she was, and after his condescending questioning, she breaks down, screaming that she had to run all the way to the other side of the campus just to use the restroom. The scene is very powerful, especially due to the incredible performance by Henson. After this, Harrison realizes how awful this is and uses his authority to make change.
He makes the restrooms integrated, and because of Katherine’s influential role, change for the whole center occurs.
Throughout the rest of the film, Katherine helps the task group and soon becomes a vital part of it. She ends up contributing to a huge part of the success of American astronaut John Glenn’s launch into space. Along the way, the audience learns that she is also a mother and widow.
She meets an army officer, Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), whom she falls in love with and eventually marries. The film also follows Dorothy’s and Mary’s lives and the obstacles they face as a result of the racism and sexism that existed in the south during this time.
Overall, I felt this film was incredibly moving and eye-opening. I loved the revelation of these “hidden figures,” and found myself itching to know more about these women and their astounding stories. It made me realize that there are probably so many hidden figures throughout history that might not be in the spotlight— many who deserve recognition. It gives me hope that some of their stories will come to the forefront.
“Hidden Figures” is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The awards ceremony takes place on Sunday, Feb. 26.