Hidden Figures

Who do you think of when someone says “NASA” or “space programme”? Most people would probably think of famous astronauts like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, fewer people would be able to name the engineers and scientists that made their journeys possible and the names Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan would most likely be met with blank faces.

Yet these three and many other black women were all essential to the success of the work done by NASA in putting a man into space and on subsequent missions; calculating the trajectories of the capsules, working as “computers” and later as computer programmers and as engineers, often being the first black woman to ever take on these jobs. Mary Jackson was the first black female engineer in NASA’s history, needing special permission from the courts to take the required graduate level maths and physics classes held at a segregated high school. Dorothy Vaughan was the first black supervisor of the “West Area Computing” unit, a group of female black mathematicians segregated from their white counterparts, an advocate for these women and later became an expert computer programmer. Katherine Goble, later Johnson, was a mathematical prodigy, worked on the trajectories of the space capsules for several flights including that of John Glenn for which he asked for her personally to check the numbers calculated by the electronic computer, and was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to co-author a research report.

The film Hidden Figures does an efficient, quietly brilliant job of telling the stories and achievements of these women, which have been hidden from the public consciousness for so long. It largely avoids the trap of the “white saviour” narrative, instead making it clear how hard these women had to struggle and strive through their own intelligence, resourcefulness and determination to get to the places they did. There are several moments where it is made clear that some help from within may be necessary for change to take place, the highly symbolic moment when her boss literally opens the door for Katherine to enter the mission room after it has shut in her face springs to mind, but above all it is their efforts that count.

Katherine, played with great emotional intensity by Taraji P. Henson, has to fight for her place at the table- literally in one scene to get into a Pentagon briefing- as the only woman, yet alone woman of colour, in her division. She is constantly asserting herself in the face of opposition based on her gender and race, without which she would have been left in the cold. The thread of her interactions with the unfriendly Paul Stafford, a composite of her real-life team members, at first appeared strange to me as it seemed to be left unfinished with no clear resolution by the end of the film, but then I realised that this was the very point. The story is not about her seeking and gaining the approval of white men, but instead them learning to get over it and accept that she is there to stay. The ending reflects this; Stafford simply places a cup of coffee on her desk, referring to an earlier moment of tension over the institution of a separate coffee pot for her in line with segregation laws, and then goes upstairs to talk to their boss, and the film ends with a quiet tableau of the three of them working late together, softly illuminated by the yellow glow of desk lamps.

This tiny moment speaks volumes; the silent placing of the coffee cup so as not to disturb her work rather than the offering of it in an overblown gesture of acceptance is especially significant, as it doesn’t shift the focus of the story onto Stafford and his emotional narrative but keeps it firmly on Katherine and her determination to just get on with her work no matter what others say. The ending tableau sums up the film in one shot; it depicts a group of people who regardless of their differences have been united with complete focus on a single goal that is bigger than all of them, and that will have a lasting legacy beyond their lives.

Stray Observations:

  • As well as being a highly emotionally intense film, it is also very funny, aided in this by the phenomenal and appropriately 60’s sounding soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch. I cheered at the moment when a white male colleague had to do the same half-mile run that Katherine had to complete every day to go to the bathroom, segregated under Jim Crow, backed with the same music no less.
  • I appreciated how the film gives some detail of their personal lives but that the overwhelming focus is on their work.
  • Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are fantastic as Dorothy and Mary, and I could write two more reviews on each of their performances and journeys throughout the film.
  • I enjoyed all the supporting performances, especially Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s boyfriend, and just loved how supportive all their husbands were, despite less than good initial reactions.

NASA bios of the real life women:

Katherine Johnson 

Mary Jackson

Dorothy Vaughan


Image Credits: NASA Langley Research Center



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