In the early 1960s, three African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA headquarters in Virginia as “computers” helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The behind-the-scenes actions of these unsung heroines helped put America ahead of the Russians in The Space Race, boosted confidence in the U.S. Space program, and changed history. But it wasn’t until many years after their brilliant contributions that these women were finally recognized. Hidden Figures (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name) tells their true story.
Their journey was unsurprisingly fraught with rampant sexism and racism, from the opening scene in which a white cop pulls up to them on the side of the road and questions them as they attempt to fix their Chevy Impala, incredulous that a woman (Octavia Spencer as Katherine Johnson) can repair a car. “It’s the starter,” she says triumphantly. He’s even more amazed when the three women tell him they work at NASA.
Impressed, the cop ends up escorting them to work, prompting Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) to quip, “Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle.” From there we see the three friends both in and out of the workplace, dealing with segregated bathrooms, coffee stations, libraries and buses, not getting credit for their work, being denied education and promotions, consistently being underestimated by men, and the list goes on and on.
On her first day working a with a group of male engineers, one of them hands Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Hensen) a trash can to empty. Her work partner (played by Jim Parsons) attempts to derail her by blacking out crucial numbers in reports she needs to analyze, insisting they are classified. He also removes her names from the reports they co-author.
While the film obviously presents racism and sexism in a critical light, it nevertheless portrays the time period itself in more of a Mad Men kind of nostalgia—from the colorful dresses and skinny ties to the rotary phones, gingham picnics and cat-eye glasses. There are also a few moments that feel a bit contrived—like when Mary almost gets stuck in a NASA lab where dangerous tests are being conducted because her high heel gets caught (Yes, we get it! She’s a woman who wears pumps!). Or when Katherine’s boss Al Harrison (played by an even keeled Kevin Costner) dramatically tears the "Colored" sticker off the coffee pot Katherine has been forced to use then destroys the "Coloreds Only” bathroom sign with a hammer, declaring, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”
Still, the history of conquering racism and sexism in America is about slowly chipping away at injustices—and the end result here is a feel good movie about an important subject and a fascinating moment in our history.
Here, we celebrate the most powerful part of Hidden Figures: the women.
1. Taraji P. Henson
HOW YOU KNOW HER: As the acid-tongued, fur-wearing matriarch Cookie on Fox’s Empire. She also earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009.
IN THIS FILM SHE PLAYS: Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician and widowed mother of three who helped calculate the launch coordinates and trajectory needed to launch U.S. astronaut John Glenn into outer space.
BEST MOMENTS: After weeks of suffering in silence, Katherine erupts into an angry speech explaining to her boss why she is perennially late (she has to run to the inconveniently located “coloreds only” bathroom). When she talks her way into a “classified” meeting and ends up doing a calculation nobody else could do, impressing astronaut John Glenn (played charmingly by Glen Powell) who calls her “the smart one,” and when she tells off a handsome military officer (Mahershala Ali,) for underestimating her, which of course, only makes him like her more and romance ensues.
WHAT’S NEXT?: An untitled film co-starring Tika Sumpter in 2017 and, of course, more Empire.
2. Octavia Spencer
HOW YOU KNOW HER: You've seem her in major films like The Help, Fruitvale Station, Allegiant and more.
IN THIS FILM SHE PLAYS: The no-nonsense Dorothy Vaughan, another NASA mathematician who is denied promotion to supervisor even though she’s already doing the job.
BEST MOMENTS: Sensing how computers will make her job obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself and her co-workers how to program. When a librarian won’t lend her the book she needs because it’s not from the “colored section” she steals it, justifying the behavior to her surprised child, declaring, “I pay taxes, too!”
WHAT’S NEXT?: The film Gifted this April alongside Chris Evans.
3. Janelle Monae
HOW YOU KNOW HER: Best known for her music (including hit song Tight Rope), she’s also a CoverGirl spokesperson. Her film debut was in this year’s critically acclaimed Moonlight as a supportive second mother figure to a troubled teen.
IN THIS FILM SHE PLAYS: Mary Jackson, another NASA employee and the sassiest of the three friends. She wants to become an engineer but is prevented from taking the classes she needs due to Virginia’s Jim Crow Laws—the state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the south.
BEST MOMENTS: When she petitions a judge, cleverly flattering him that his judgment will be an important step in the Civil Rights Movement, which convinces him to let her take night courses. One night when she even convinces her workaholic pals to let loose, drink, and dance.
WHAT’S NEXT?: More music and working on her charity Fem The Future—a grassroots movement to raise awareness of and opportunities for women and those who identify as women. Based on this year's debuts, she will also likely be in more films (we hope!).
4. Kirsten Dunst
HOW YOU KNOW HER: As the ambitious head cheerleader in Bring it On, plus The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Spiderman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, FX’s Fargo and more.
IN THIS FILM SHE PLAYS: Vivian, the condescending boss who oversees the female mathematicians at NASA.
BEST MOMENTS: When Dorothy asks her why she’s not being promoted even though she’s doing the job of a supervisor Vivian replies cooly, “Well, that’s NASA for you.” And then, when she awkwardly tries to connect/apologize to Dorothy as the two share a moment in the newly non-segregated restroom.
WHAT’S NEXT: Beguiled with Nicole Kidman this June, and then Woodshock, written and directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers of the fashion label Rodarte.