Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, was nominated for Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay, and, Best Supporting Actress) at the 2016 Academy Awards and tells the inspiring story of three real-life African-American women working for NASA at Langley Research Centre, during attempts to get an American into orbit around the Earth during the early 1960s Space Race with the USSR. The women – mathematician, Katherine Johnson; computer/programming specialist, Dorothy Vaughan; and, engineer, Mary Jackson, played an important role in getting John Glenn (who died, aged ninety-five, a few days before the film premiered) into space. The first-rate cast includes Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons.
Jane Monae plays Mary Jackson, pictured attending what was, until her arrival (following a fictitious court hearing), an all-white college.
I wanted to see Hidden Figures because it is an affirmation of what can be achieved when restrictions are removed and people are appreciated for what they are, and not judged by the colour of their skin or their gender. Whilst there are a number of historical inaccuracies in the story, I took the film to be a celebration of three intellectually gifted black women in an era that, today, hardly seems credible. There are some memorable scenes driven by racial segregation – for example, when Johnson is required to run half-a-mile to the coloured ladies’ toilets, and then run the half-a-mile back, in the rain. Whilst this apparently never actually happened to Johnson, and certainly never during 1961, when the film is set, as such segregation at NASA was abolished in 1958, as a piece of drama it works very well indeed.
Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, who became NASA’s first black supervisor (though in reality she became a supervisor for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, in 1949)
The film also tackles some gender stereotyping even within the black community, such as when a black colonel (who later becomes Johnson’s husband) questions the role of women as mathematicians.
There are also some nice historical points too, such as when mathematicians were actually referred to as ‘computers’. The art direction and period setting are spot on.
The real Katherine Johnson who will be a 100 years old on the 26th August, 2018
Hidden Figures is, in my opinion, a well-crafted if slightly heavy-handed and over-simplified piece – as Shoard put it: ‘A movie that knows right from wrong and doesn’t see any use in complicating matters’(Shoard, 2016), and one that succeeds in conveying how ridiculous the notion of segregation based on colour, actually is. However, we must take note of what Johnson once said: “I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."(HistoryvsHollywood.com, 2016) In true academic circles, colour and gender are not important (and probably never have been), it is what is in your brain and the contribution you make that counts. As Tim Robey noted: ‘Hidden Figures isn’t pushing the cinematic boat out in any new directions, but it steers its prescribed course nimbly and nicely'(Robey, 2017).
The real Dorothy Vaughan who died in 2008, aged 98. The real Mary Jackson who died in 2005, aged 83.
o "KATHERINE JOHNSON INTERVIEW: NASA'S HUMAN COMPUTER". HistoryvsHollywood.com. CTF Media. 2016. Citation:http://www.historyvshollywood.com/video/katherine-johnson-interview-nasa/
o Robey, T. (2017) Hidden Figures review: a space-race segregation drama full of star power. Telegraph.co.uk
o Shoard, C. (2016) Hidden Figures review – black women Nasa boffin pic defies its formula. The Guardian.com
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson