By Emily Weikl
The opening scene of “Hidden Figures,” a movie adaptation of author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, depicts a young girl solving math problems on a chalkboard in West Virginia.
At the time, she was known as Katherine Colman.
“By thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College,” Shetterly said. “At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D in Mathematics.”
Now going by the name Katherine Goble, she was eventually hired by the West Computing section for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory in Virginia. Goble (Taraji P. Henson) meets Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Johnson (Janelle Monae) there.
Fastforward, and the three are trying to repair a broken down car in 1961. They are confronted by a white police officer who questions what they are doing in the area. Once the trio explains who they are, the officer gives them an escort to Langley. Johnson jibed, “Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”
In an article for Variety, Peter Debruge wrote of the historical details and tone of “Hidden Figures.”
“Like ‘American Graffiti’ or ‘The Help,’ ‘Hidden Figures’ takes place in a colorful, borderline-kitsch version of the American past,” Debruge said. “Practically brandishing its vintage details and stunning costumes, the film takes place at roughly the same time and place as Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving,’ which offers a less splashy notion of the era in question.”
The plot deals, in part, with Goble’s, Vaughn’s and Johnson’s professional struggles. Goble, who had since been widowed, is promoted to a role in the Space Task Group that was responsible for propelling John Glenn into Earth’s orbit. Vaughn becomes a supervisor to a team at the West Computing Building, but does not reap the financial benefits of the position. And as for Johnson, she ends up going to court to take night classes at a segregated school that will allow her to be an engineer.
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal argued that these details don’t affect the film a great deal. “Still, the film hews closely to the facts in important respects, and evokes the outrages of the Jim Crow era, as well as the feverish competition of the space race, through the fascinating work of its extraordinary heroines,” he said. “So is ‘Hidden Figures’ about work, rockets or racism? Yes, yes and yes.”
“Hidden Figures” also has hints of feminism. A notable scene involves Goble pointing out her accomplishments to Jim Johnson after he expresses doubt that NASA allows women’s involvement in computing. To this, Goble responds, “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses. Good day.”
The end credits pay tribute to the real-life women: Henson, Spencer, and Monae portrayed. Their accomplishments after the 1960’s are mixed with scenes from the film. Katherine Goble, who became Katherine Johnson during the film’s events, calculated Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Vaughn became a FORTRAN programmer and contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program. Jackson became the first black female engineer at NASA as a result of the court ruling in her favor. The last frame of footage is all three womens’ portraits.
These women took shuttles and capsules to new heights while they struggled to be treated the same as white people on Earth. “Hidden Figures” takes place at a time where ‘separate but equal’ was the norm in Virginia and much of the South. The racism and sexism the trio faced is undeniable. The film’s message, though, goes beyond this.
“While it will be easy for some to place ‘Hidden Figures’ in a black movie category, which often happens to films with multiple black lead actors – it’s more than that. ‘Hidden Figures’ is a movie about American triumph, defying the odds through perseverance and hard work, and creating something special from the hand that you’ve been dealt. Those are the stories that make up the fiber of who we are as human beings,” said Ira Hobbs of ScreenRant.
The women’s accomplishments were downplayed during their time, but in this day and age the heroines of “Hidden Figures” should be celebrated, and this movie is a good start at giving them their due.