Twentieth Century Fox 127 minutes PG
This story should have been widely known long ago. It is based on the true lives of the women behind the scenes who were the human equivalent of computational computers. They are the smart African-American women who used their mathematical skills to help NASA and the US launch a comeback into the space race getting astronauts John Glenn in orbit and then on to the moon.
This is more than a space history film, although the archival films showing the space program at that time are fascinating. And there is archival footage of the civil rights movement, too. This is also a sociology lesson in racial attitudes during the Mad Men era of the 1960’s.Women had a tough enough time proving themselves worthy, let alone equal to men in ability and intelligence. But for Black women, as portrayed in this film, it was almost impossible to get accepted, let alone recognized for a job well done.
The film zeroes in on three of these brilliant hard-working women who crossed all gender and race lines in their own way. Director Tom Melfi (St. Vincent) says that when Allison Schroeder’s screenplay, he was completely blown away.
It is well portrayed and Melfi paces it well. There is original music used for transitions that matches the actions of the women. Much of it was composed and performed by Pharrell Williams who is also one of the producers of the film. He says he had to be a part of it because he’s a space junkie and grew up not far from where it was shot. He is a staunch supporter of civil and women’s rights. He’s also into 60’s music. Pharrell, Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight) and Benjamin Wallfisch (Twelve Years a Slave, Eat Pray Love) composed songs and the score for the film.
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson. A mathematical wizard who could figure out the most advanced analytical geometry by hand from the time she was 6. Remember, this is before the age of the desk-top computer. All she had was an adding machine, if she used it at all! Director Melfi says Henson inhabited the role of Johnson so fast and so well, it was almost “scientific” while showing an “ocean of emotion” in relationships with her daughters and Col. Jim Johnson, played handsomely by Mahershalal Ali. She is spot on in her characterization. We don’t know how she wrote those equations out in scenes like she knew what she was doing. Melfi says she learned it in her hotel room by herself, came to the set, went to the chalkboard, and just did the math.
Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan. She actually supervises the large group of “computers” as they called. These are the ladies who ran the numbers and double checked by hand. They did the math for the White men in a building on the other side of NASA’s campus at Langley Research Center in Virginia. It was vital for their calculations to be right for launches and re-entries of the spacecraft to be made safely. But she was neither dignified with the title nor pay of Supervisor until she heard that she and her ladies might be replaced by a new IBM computer. That’s when she took action.
Dorothy took it upon herself to learn Fortran, the original code used to operate the new IBM computers that the male programmers couldn’t get to work. She saw the future coming and took care of her ladies by teaching them Fortran, too, and saved all of their jobs. Spencer is stoic, analytical and shows a dry sense of humor playing the role. She had to hold back and make her bosses think they came up with the right stuff.
Jonelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the third member of this band of sisters. The singer/actress (she even sings a song on the soundtrack) loved that Mary was spunky, fearless and courageous. She has the smarts to be an engineer, but can’t get the credentials. Why? Because the extension class she needs is only offered at an all White high school. Mary has to go to court to plead for a chance to attend the class, even though she is Negro in segregated Virginia.
Monáe brings lots of attitude and swagger to this role. She adds fire not being afraid to fight for what she wants. Director Melfi says the women the actresses portrayed were not only friends at NASA, but the actresses bonded on the set as well. Monáe considers Henson and Spencer sisters who helped her all the way. Monáe says the costuming for all the women is respectful and detailed. They each had their own look and style.
The way these women were treated is shameful. It should make your blood boil. When Katherine is reprimanded by her tough but sometimes understanding boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) for long absences from her desk, she has to enlighten him about her having to run 1/2 a mile in heels to the colored restroom across the campus. She’s prohibited from using the White womens’ facility in the building where she works. And she is forced to use a small coffee pot labeled “colored” instead of being able to drink out of the big one everyone else uses. Costner starts out a little weak as the passive boss who could have been more aware and done more about it, but he finally gets it.
Paul Stafford, another space scientist played by Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), is insecure and constantly holding Katherine back and putting obstacles her way. Al doesn’t see it or do anything about it until Katherine is mad enough to finally explode. Henson as Dorothy delivers an impassioned speech that puts them on on notice that their bigotry is putting NASA’s mission in jeopardy. Today they call it harassment and a hostile work environment. Then, it was all too accepted. In spite of the drawbacks, these women were able, in time, to make a name for themselves, and it’s amazing that this story didn’t get more attention sooner.
Hidden Figures is one of those rare movies that not only plays extremely well in the theater, but ought to be shown in classrooms as well. Pharrell says this film is empowering. Schools are now recruiting women for STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math) And it’s definitely not just for nerds! Numbers don’t care about race or gender, and as Dorothy says, they don’t lie. The calculations made by these women led to the success of the space program bringing astronauts into space and back safely.
Even more important, they were considered visionaries who saw what was coming and were human computers before the machines came on the scene. Melfi says Katherine Johnson never thought it was such a big deal, but she has a building at NASA’s Langley Research Center named after her and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.
There are lessons to be learned about math, space, race and history revealed by these hidden figures performed by Henson, Spencer and Monáe. Do the math, the formula works.