Originally published in the print edition here
By Robert Geoghegan.
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson
Director: Theodore Melfi
Run time: 127 mins
Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of Katherine Johnson’s life through some of the worst times in 1960’s segregated America. It was during this time of social unrest, social inequality for the black community, and for women, that Johnson helped break through the glass ceiling into the stratosphere.
Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe, and Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson – three African-American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes.
Johnson’s work for NASA was pivotal in helping to win the space race to get man to the moon, after the US lost the race with the Soviets to get the first rocket to space and then lost again in getting the first man up there.
Johnson was selected to move integration forward at the graduate programme at the then all-white West Virginia University. Johnson taught mathematics, French, and music in public schools in Virginia, until 1952, when a family member told her about a job opening at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory.
Johnson co-authored the 1960 report: Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report containing equations describing the trajectories for placing manned mercury capsules into low-earth orbit and returning it safely to the planet’s surface. This made Johnson the first credited female author in the flight division.
Hidden Figures picks up story when Johnson was known as one of the ‘computers who wear skirts’, a division within N.A.S.A that calculate complicated sums, during a period of time before advanced computers. Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African-American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation.
This didactic tale couldn’t come at a more important time, with divisive political movements threatening to build walls and close borders. Hidden Figures has an important message quoted from Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Costner’s character is always looking for the bigger picture: the mathematical breakthrough to give America the edge, an equation that didn’t exist yet. The answer, however, came from a formula that was always in front of them, they just couldn’t see its value.