The movie “Hidden Figures” is one of those rare great films where you have so many conflicting emotions while seeing it. In my case, the emotions included respect for how brilliant these 3 black women from the south were in the early 60’s. So brilliant that they were able to break into a field completely dominated by white men, which means that they had to be far smarter than anyone who had the job they got at NASA. I was amazed that all 3 of these women were able to get anywhere near the education they would need to get the jobs that they had, considering the prejudice and injustice they had to overcome during their lives just because they were black women. The other emotion I felt was anger over the disrespect these 3 women received because of who they were, even being forced within an institution as respected as NASA to use what they called “colored bathrooms”. Despite all of this, especially in the case of Katherine Johnson, they were able because of their mathematical brilliance to put many of their white male co-workers to shame and in several instances, save the Space Program and some lives along the way.
The movie Hidden Figures is about 3 women who worked at NASA during the early years of the Space Program, even before IBM Mainframe computers were used to perform all of the massive calculations necessary to get a rocket into space and return a space capsule flown by a man back to earth. These women were Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughn played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monáe. Of these 3 women, Katherine Johnson had the largest part of this great historical story, mainly because her work was the most instrumental in getting the United States into space to compete with the Russians, but more importantly due to her incredible genius at calculating orbits and complex mathematical equations, actually saved lives. From Katherine’s first day of being transferred to the part of NASA that was focused on planning and calculating the orbits of spacecraft, she was discriminated and disrespected by everyone she worked with, for being the only black person and the only black woman in her group. This included having to run over one half mile to a different building to use the “colored women’s bathroom”, which sets up what was in my opinion the best scene of this movie when her boss, played by Kevin Costner, questions where she is for 40 minutes at a time during a workday. Kevin Costner is also outstanding in his role, one of the best he has had in many years.
The other two women were also very impressive. Mary Jackson became the first woman engineer at NASA and Dorothy Vaughn became the first African-American supervisor at NASA and taught herself coding to eventually become an expert FORTRAN programmer. Both of these women also had to overcome long odds and long hours to gain any traction in their career, as the corporate world at NASA would “change the finish line”, whenever any of them had an opportunity to get promoted or even get a small raise.
What got me the most about this extremely impressive story was the realization that when so many people are oppressed by bigotry or sexism, so much potential and contribution from so many gifted people are lost for all humanity. How many geniuses do we lose to bigotry, money or circumstance or just being born in the wrong place or time, or to the wrong parents, never to realize their full potential to perhaps one day cure a major disease, or invent something invaluable to the human race? How many brilliant women never go into math or science for the simple excuse that they believe that this is a man’s job. When we realize that a brain is a brain then we recognize that a person’s sex or race have nothing to do with their intelligence or creativity. Unfortunately, humanity has lost so much due to so many years of injustice and stupidity making the fluke miracle of these 3 women, that nobody has ever heard of before all the more amazing. Why these 3 pioneers have not been honored by the President long before they have been or more widely known in this country, over 50 years after they accomplished so much for the US Space Program is another reason why I got so angry while watching this movie. Everybody has heard of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, but what about Katherine Johnson, whose mathematical genius made their famous spaceflights possible in the first place.
Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons also make solid appearances in this film as co-workers who made the lives of these 3 great women as difficult as possible.
Hidden figures is a highly informative and well made historical movie about the early years of the Space Program and receives my highest recommendation.