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.
Hopper Stone/ Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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.