Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars
Bottom Line: Katherine Johnson nee Goble, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan. Remember their names. Know their story.
If there was one thing Americans in the 1960s feared more than Blacks, it was Russians. Thus it came to be that NASA, whose motto at the time was “not quite as racist as the rest of America”, decided to hire a bunch of really smart Black women and segregate them in their own building and grossly underutilize their talents. So begins “Hidden Figures”, a wonderful retelling of the courageous and inspiring story of three super talented Black ladies who overcome adversity and help change the culture of NASA by simply doing what they’ve always been good at. With a little help of Russia and their kicking our asses in the race to space.
A good portion of the movie is dedicated to Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) and her work as a “computer”, what people who ran calculations were actually called before the advent of what we now call computers. Katherine gets her big break when a NASA-wide search of employees with analytic geometry skills comes up empty, until it is mentioned to Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spenser) who quickly points to Katherine as the person they need. Katherine goes on to wow the white male, white shirt, black tie crowd at NASA with her ability to solve unsolved equations. All while running back and forth, in heels, across campus to the colored bathrooms.
Dorothy Vaughan’s story is no less amazing. She was a supervisor of the colored women’s mathematical section in all but title. Not only that, but she took it upon herself to not only learn the programming language FORTRAN after learning of the receipt of the new IBM mainframe at NASA, but she also taught her entire group of women FORTRAN as well and later went on to become the actual supervisor of the computing group.
Finally, the one who gets short shrift, in my opinion, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Mary was an engineer in all but title and while NASA had a clear-cut way for employees to earn the title of engineer, they were so restrictive that classes were only taught at all-white schools. Keep in mind, this was Virginia in the 60s. While desegregation was the law of the land, Virginia was fighting it as best they could. Mary had to petition the courts of Virginia to allow her to take the required engineering classes at these all-white schools. And she won.
“Hidden Figures” tells their stories and has a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. In fact, it should be used as an example in how to use a soundtrack effectively. For example, it uses a certain song when highlighting Katherine’s race to the colored bathroom all the way across campus. Then, it uses the same song to highlight a white male engineer racing across campus to the colored section to retrieve Katherine at a crucial moment when they need her expertise to great comedic effect. Little things like that, along with a great story, make “Hidden Figures” a pleasure to watch and I highly recommend it.
Coming out of the theater, I found myself wondering which tidbits of the stories contained in the movie are true and which are simply made up and which are apocryphal. For instance, when NASA first receives their mainframe from IBM, the door they built was too small to bring the mainframe through. I know this to be a true story. Or at least I think I do. I have at least heard that story before. Is it true? Who knows? Any time I see a “based on true events” movie, I wonder that. Another in this movie, there’s a scene where Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) tears the “colored restroom” sign out of the wall with a crowbar after learning that Katherine is running across campus to the bathroom and wasting his time. Beats it down, more accurately. Did that really happen?