Courage, genius and resilience are the co-stars of Hidden Figures, which is about three groundbreaking African-American women who used their mathematical genius to help launch the United States’ manned space program at NASA.
Battling more than just the physics needed to launch a man into orbit and bring him back, a considerable task in its own right, these brave and talented women also had to fight the incredibly petty and small-minded but frighteningly deadly social strata of Southern racism.
The three human stars of the show are Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson. They brilliantly portrait the struggles of hand-calculating the various vectors and trajectories of space flight and recovery along with the struggles of being academic geniuses who are heavily repressed from being treated as second-class citizens in a prejudiced society.
Sporting the job title of “computers,” these three women are more than ordinary number crunchers for the agency that would become NASA. Dorothy Vaughan is the leader of the pool of computers, serving as a supervisor without being rewarded with the title and pay of the job, due to racism. She ultimately becomes one of NASA’s first programmers of an IBM mainframe. Mary Jackson has a brilliant mind for engineering with a litany of academic degrees that overshadow the actual engineers she works with but cannot be admitted to the engineering department simply because of her race. And Katherine Johnson is the main focus of the film as a single mother of three girls who ultimately solves the riddle of launching a man into orbit and then bringing him safely back down to earth.
Busting barriers at every turn, she slowly earns the respect of her almost exclusively white-male colleagues, eventually earning the respect of the military establishment and the respect and gratitude of America’s first man in space, John Glenn, who requests her specifically to verify his flight plan before boarding the rocket that would make him a national hero.
Along the way we see the struggles of not being allowed to pee in a building because there are no black bathrooms, of being harassed by the police for having a broken vehicle on the side of the road, of being prevented from borrowing books not designated as being for black people at the library and so on and so forth. Mary Jackson has to go to court to be allowed to take night classes because the courses she needs to become an engineer are at a whites-only high school.
The supporting cast has an unenviable job. Although Kevin Costner is a fairly non-racist boss who just wants the very best people working their hardest, regardless of race while he runs the program at NASA, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons play the heavies toeing racist lines for the office they work in, treating Katherine Johnson with contempt on their best days. It is no stretch seeing Parsons as a math nerd after his time on The Big Bang Theory, but seeing him and the perennially perky Dunst as cold, unfeeling bigots was painful. Kudos to their acting chops for making me squirm.
As a society, it has only been about 45 years or so since the blacks-only and whites-only signs have come down from water fountains and restrooms. It isn’t that long ago, but nearly two full generations have grown up now without them. As we examine race in America today, this film shows a clear reminder of not only how far we’ve come, but it also helps to explain why and how there is so much racism still present in what many try to call “postracial” America.
This film shows it as it was and why so many people are afraid of the nation backsliding on race relations.
Most of all, this film shows the incredible patriotic spirit and tenacious dedication of these women who overcame so much to do what had been previously seen as the impossible for their nation.
Nathaniel Cerf, who now has a master’s degree, almost didn’t graduate high school because he never could figure out Algebra II. For him to say he likes a movie about math, it has to be good. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.