“You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you.” – Katherine G. Johnson
“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” – Katherine G. Johnson
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the term computer had a different meaning at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. It referred to women with strong backgrounds in math who worked as human computers. With Virginia still a segregated state at the time, the African-American women worked in the West Area Computing Unit.
One of those women was Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) whose astonishing ability with math resulted in her starting college when she was only 15 and graduating summa cum laude from West Virginia State College when she was 18. Because of her solid grasp of analytical geometry she is sent to work in the Space Task Group led by “Al Harrison” (Kevin Costner) and his lead engineer “Paul Stafford” (Jim Parsons). Among the work done by this group is the plotting of the trajectories for the missions of the Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn (Glen Powell).
Another was Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who was the acting supervisor of the West Area Computers at the time. They had always had white supervisors but when the most recent one took ill and had to leave, a new one was not hired. Instead, Dorothy’s supervisor “Vivian Jackson” (Kirsten Dunst) had Dorothy doing the work without the title or added pay.
The third of these women was Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). She was assigned to work with a unit supervised by “Karl Zielinski” (Olek Krupa) who pushes her to pursue becoming an aeronautical engineer. The problem is that while NASA does have a program that might allow her to make that move, in order to qualify for it she needs to take courses being held at a whites-only high school.
Hidden Figures follows the journey of these three women and those around them from before the first U.S. sub-orbital flight through John Glenn’s splashdown after he successfully orbited the Earth. A re-entry that could not have been done without the calculations of Katherine Johnson (she got remarried).
Writer/director Theodore Melfi does a terrific job of telling his story against a backdrop that showed the tension of segregation as the struggle for civil rights intensified. There are references to the Freedom Riders, Dr. Martin Luther King and some protests in the area where the women live. This is done without overpowering the central story of the women. The three leads are give great performances as do the supporting performers.
Mary Jackson became the first African-American female aeronautical engineer at NASA. Dorothy Vaughan was promoted, becoming the first African-American female supervisor at NASA. Katherine Johnson would go on to calculate the flight trajectory of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What makes Hidden Figures such a great movie is that it tells the stories of these amazing women in a very believable yet informative manner. It is inspiring and heartwarming all at once.