Hidden Figures: Not Hidden Anymore

hidden figures

Nominated for “Best Picture” in the 2017 Academy Awards (Oscars), “Hidden Figures” was a major box-office success in 2017. It is a screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. ‘Hidden Figures” is far from yet another mere title. It depicts three veiled components in the 20th century Space Program:

  • The role of mathematicians behind the space program.
  • The African-American women who carried out the sums.
  • The isolation of the very same “colored human computers” in a secluded wing at the Langley Research Center of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a precursor of NASA.
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Unknown Women Behind a Known Mission

The plot revolves mainly around a heroine trio who is a part of NASA’s pool of  “computers” that perform mathematical calculations for the space program during the space race in the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer (2017 Academy Award nominee for best supporting actress), and Janelle Monáe portray Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson respectively.

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Jim Crow laws make these “colored women” work in a discrete, isolated environment from the rest of white males. As if sexism and racism are not enough, these three African-American (Negro) women have to keep their heads up during the space race. “Hidden Figures” spotlights Katherine Johnson while building up the other two lead characters with their own arcs. In addition, there are both non-fictional characters such as John Glenn, Jim Johnson and fictional characters namely Al Harrison, Paul Stafford, Vivian Mitchell, and many more to assist in driving the storytelling.

Katherine Goble Johnson: The Genius

In all my years of teaching, I have never seen a mind like the one your daughter has…

Ms. Sumner (portrayed by Maria Howell)

“Hidden Figures” displays the journey of that girl with an extraordinary mind Katherine, till she becomes the backbone of several space missions later in life.

Nevertheless, nothing comes to her on a silver platter. Her brilliance earns her a scholarship to West Virginia Collegiate Institute, “the best school for the Negros in the state” where she graduates with the highest honors. Katherine is one of the Negro women in a room named “colored computers” in an early phase of the movie. However, being the only one with a knack for analytical geometry, she reserves her seat in the Space Task Group, even though it seems temporary. The space race was extremely important for America back in the 20th century that even the minority and women could grab opportunities in the program with their skills.

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This sole brown face in the Space Task Group does not receive anything more at first than being mistaken as a janitor, only because she is a colored woman. The cold welcome by the executive assistant of the group followed by long-mile runs to the only colored bathroom and a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” that no white man wishes to touch make the spectators root for Katherine.

The Chance to Calculate Shepard’s Trajectory

Al Harrison, the tough yet fair supervisor, and Paul Stafford, one of the antagonists in the movie, play a significant role in Katherine’s life at the Space Task Group. Stafford is a typical white man who has no desire to tolerate a Negro woman checking his calculations, attending a Pentagon briefing, or authoring a report. On the other hand, Al Harrison has a better work ethic and considers pure talent over gender or race.

You know what your job is, Paul? Find the genius among those geniuses…

Al Harrison (portrayed by Kevin Costner) to Paul Stafford (portrayed by Jim Parsons)

None of these two is a real-life character.  However, they are a combination of different traits of people Katherine has met in her life at NASA.  The American government and NASA tries to catch the Russians up with the Mercury mission, as Russians become the pioneer in the space race by setting their mark first in space with a human-piloted flight is a crushing blow for America. Meanwhile, Katherine figures out that the Redstone rocket cannot support orbital flight due to its inability in handling the weight of the Mercury capsule. This discovery clears her the path to perform the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Mercury Mission in May 1961, America’s first human suborbital space flight.

Katherine gets a jump on John Glenn’s trajectory as a result of her desire and diligence. It is not a surprise that this genius calculates the exact Go/No-go for the orbital mission of John Glenn. In the movie, Glenn wants Al Harrison to get Katherine, “the smart one” to confirm the numbers before the launch. The exact conversation has happened in reality, even though it was not in the last moment as in the movie. Glenn became the first American to reach orbit and is acknowledged to this date. Anyhow, the mathematical genius behind the mission was hidden until recent times.

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It’s not because we wear skirts…

Amidst all these scenarios at NASA, widowed Katherine meets Jim Johnson, who later becomes her second husband. However, at their first meeting, Johnson puts a wrong foot down and finds it hard to believe that women are handling calculations at NASA to which unimpressed Katherine rattles,

I will have you know, I was the first Negro female student at West Virginia University graduate school. On any given day, I analyze the manometer levels for air displacement, friction, and velocity. And compute over ten thousand calculations by cosine, square root, and lately analytic geometry. By hand. There are twenty, bright, highly capable Negro women in the west computing group, and we’re proud to be doing our part for the country. 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. Have a good day!

Katherine Goble Johnson in “Hidden Figures” (2017)

This particular conversation sheds more light on the uproaring male ego and how underestimating the men of the 20th century were about women and their capabilities. A complex discipline like mathematics used to be a men’s domain where no women were allowed unless their extraordinary skills seldomly made it inside.

Katherine G. Johnson continued calculating trajectories, launching windows and the return paths for many famous space flights afterward, such as Project Mercury 1969’s Apollo 11 (first flight to the Moon) and the Space Shuttle program (plans for a mission to Mars) in her real life. She lived a long life of 101 years (August 1918 – February 2020) and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. In 2018, NASA stepped up to name a computational facility at Langley after Katherine Johnson. She was fortunate enough to witness this very movie “Hidden Figures” and to receive a standing ovation at the Academy Awards 2017.

Mary Jackson: The Visionary Engineer

Karl Zielinksi: Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary Jackson: I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.

Mary Jackson is a witted mathematician with a vision of an engineer. But, alas! she is not a he, and on top of that, she belongs to the African-American community. When she finally decides to apply to the engineering program heeding to Mr. Z, a requirement for advanced extension courses through the University of Virginia or the Hampton High school (both segregated institutions) pops up.

“Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.”

This strong-willed woman does not give up that easily, though. She seeks justice from courts even if her husband surmises that civil rights are not always civil. She is well prepared, reaches the judge, and relates the story to his situation delineating the consequence of being a first.

I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter a hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?

Mary Jackson in “Hidden Figures” (2017)

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The night school professor at Hampton High School states the lamest statement in the entire movie.

Nightschool Professor: Well the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman.
Mary Jackson: I imagine it’s the same as teaching a man.

Apparently, in the 20th century, even the curricula have had a gender!

In the long run, Mary Jackson became the first black female engineer at NASA. In 2020, even years after her demise in 2005, NASA’s headquarters in Washington was named in Mary Jackson’s honor.

Dorothy Vaughan: The Epitome of Leadership

Dorothy Vaughan is the forever optimistic and always looking forward character in “Hidden Figures”. She supervises the “colored computers” and their assignments without the benefit of the official designation or the salary.

There’s Only One Thing To Do: Learn All We Can.

Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures” (2017)

This is one of the most sensible lines in the whole movie by Dorothy. The development of technology is a double-edged sword. When technology advances, humans lose to technology and get thrown out of their occupations. Dorothy senses the mishap they all will land in when the IBM 7090 data processing system that can handle 24000 multiplications per second starts operating. She “borrows” a book of programming from the Hampton public library and starts teaching “her girls” who are colored computers, while sneaking and experimenting with IBM from time to time as she believes that “somewhere down the line a human is gonna push the buttons”.

Although Dorothy receives an assignment to the IMB when the whites uncover her programming skills, she does not wish to leave her colleagues. She protects her team at the risk of her own status and security, manifesting her leadership qualities. She stands up for all the colored women throughout all time spans.

I’m not accepting my reassignment unless I bring my ladies with me.

Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures” (2017)

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By becoming the first African-American NASA supervisor, Dorothy ensured that her employees received promotions or were paid raises as they deserve. Later, she became an expert in FORTRAN programming and contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program too.

“Hidden Figures”: A Movie of Brilliance

“Hidden Figures” is a movie on feminism and American civil rights during the space race on the surface. In a deeper sense, it’s all about humanity, the race of all humans. The breezy screenplay by Melfi and Schroeder kingpins the intelligence and the warmth of human relationships rather than complex aeronautical science. Nevertheless, it has something to offer to everyone despite whether you are a “space nerd” or not.

The sisterhood among the leading trio who are objectified as colored computers, their approaches in overcoming obstacles, sense of humor, and courage that supersedes both sexism and racism collectively make this a spellbinding motion picture. No discrimination, racism, or prejudice slowed them down from reaching the “finish line”.

“Hidden Figures” provides food for thought as to how many more talented women and Negros must have been shut out of promotions, institutes, and basically from history. Can we guarantee that there are no women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) hidden anymore? Are there any women forced to stay inside the domestic sphere with no opportunity to chase their dreams?

In a nutshell, embracing talents instead of gender or race, and paving them the way to reach the finish line is of paramount importance, as genius has no gender and courage has no color.


01. A Brief History of Jim Crow. (n.d.). Constitutional Rights Foundation. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/a-brief-history-of-jim-crow
02. Fox, C. (2017, March 9). Hidden Figures (2016). IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/
03. Joseph, N. (2020, March 5). ‘Hidden Figures’ Honored at U.S. Capitol for Congressional Gold Medal. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/hidden-figures-honored-at-us-capitol-for-congressional-gold-medal/
04. Tobias, S. (2016, December 22). The “Hidden Figures” Who Crunched The Numbers In The Space Race. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2016/12/22/506341062/the-hidden-figures-who-crunched-the-numbers-in-the-space-race
05. Wild, F. (2020, March 5). Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/a-lifetime-of-stem.html

Image Courtesies

01. Featured Image: Designed by Dasith Tilakaratna (SEDS UOC). Resource images from https://bit.ly/2YAVJvk, https://bit.ly/3uTOLNw, https://bit.ly/3BowQBd, https://go.nasa.gov/3BrwMjY, https://bit.ly/3oJdumF, https://bit.ly/3DoJ7WY.
02. Image 01: https://bit.ly/3uOppk7
03. Image 02: https://bit.ly/3Dp4J5A
04. Image 03: https://bit.ly/3BjQ9M1
05. Image 04: https://bit.ly/3oPGMQH
06. Image 05: https://bit.ly/3Bn6akq
07. Image 06: https://bit.ly/3v1jA3f

Article by S. S. Gunasekara (3rd Year Undergraduate)

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