There’s a sequence early on in Hidden Figures that might touch the heart strings of most Mensans. A young child wearing glasses proves to be so special, a school administrator has a special conference with her parents. Shapes from a stained glass window, float into the air before the young child who instinctively understands geometry and other abstractions.
That child was Katherine Coleman. The movie doesn’t tell us that she was the youngest of four children. Nor does it tell us that her father, Joshua Coleman, was a handyman, nor that her mother, Joylette (Karan Kendrick), was a teacher. The film does show modest parents earnest in their support of her education even though Katherine was a black girl in Virginia. Katherine would graduate from high school at 14 and from college at 18 with a major in math in 1937, but the film jumps forward, skipping her years as a teacher, her first marriage to James Goble in 1939 and his death in 1959.
When the movie begins, she is not a teacher any more, but the single mother of three girls, her name now Katherine Gogle, working at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. She’s stuck on the road behind the wheel waiting for her acting supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), to fix the car while their co-worker Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) smokes a cigarette. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine.
When a white cop rolls in, he’s surprised, but turns out helpful although it’s clear that the women don’t expect friendly. At work, they are segregated into a different pool from the white female human “computers” or research mathematicians. The black computers have a different water fountain and a separate colored bathroom. Dorothy has been acting supervisor without the extra pay, but she also has a determination that is to be reckoned with.
The white cop isn’t the only one who underestimates this threesome. When Katherine first meets Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson (Mahershala Ali), he thinks secretary rather than research mathematician. Hidden Figures does touch upon their romance, but greater emphasis is on how Katherine gains the respect of the director of the Space Task Group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and then the grudging cooperation of one of the head researchers, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Harrison is task-oriented; he’s probably already gone through the entire white female computer pool.
One isn’t quite sure what disturbs Stafford more — that his work is being checked by a woman or by a person who is not white. One of the research group members doesn’t want to share the coffee pot with a black person and a small separate coffee pot is marked “colored” just for her.
For those women who have worked in the white-collared world with the uniform mantra of skirts, pearls and pumps, you’ll sympathize with Katherine as she has to trek across the broad NASA campus to the colored bathroom until finally one day she returns, soaking wet after running in heels through the pouring rain. Confronted by Harrison about her absence during a crunch time, Katherine explains the situation, harnessing an anger that has been percolating for decades. Harrison responds with practicality, removing the colored bathroom sign and desegregating the whole restrooms. He’s more worried about the race with the Soviet Union into space and the moon than the concept of separate human races.
The bathroom facility issue is dealt with lightly in Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s screenplay, and deftly filmed by director Theodore Melfi. The allegro staccato of Johnson’s heel tapping while she’s sitting down going over figures precedes her departure. Her run across a parking lot in heels while carrying the books of figures she’s checking is desperation hemmed in by a skirt. It might seem comical unless you’ve been in those heels, perhaps just looking for the women’s restroom in a predominately male area or industry.
Restrooms are one thing; glass ceilings are another. Dorothy has managerial qualities, but she’s black and under the supervision of her white counterpart, Vivian Jackson (Kirsten Dunst), who is courteous, but not pleasant nor helpful. Dorothy is not being paid for her extra work. Yet the script shows that Vivian isn’t the only person who turned Dorothy away or underestimated her. When the new IBM computer rolls in, Dorothy understands she’s in danger of being replaced and she’s not complacent. At the local library, she meets with more resistance because books on computers aren’t in the colored section.
Mary also wants more and becomes interested in wind tunnel experiments, going to court to gain admittance into all-white all-male courses in order to become an aerospace engineer with the support of her husband, Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge).
All three women went on to do great things, but it was Katherine who worked on the Mercury project calculating trajectories, launch windows and the emergency return flights. In 1962, at a crucial moment, the late John Glenn (Glen Powell) asked specifically to have Katherine check the calculations of the IBM computer, a system that had only been recently introduced into the space program, and this moment is shown in the movie.
The Soviets put the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961), but Glenn would follow on Friendship 7 (February 20, 1962).
The movie doesn’t follow the women past John Glenn’s flight into space but does provide a short epilogue.
Katherine Johnson (b. 1918) retired as an aerospace technologist from NASA in 1986. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was dedicated to her in May of this year. Last year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dorothy Vaughan (1910–2008) retired from NASA in 1971, having specialized in electronic computing and FORTRAN programming. She was on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Project tests.
Mary Jackson (1921–2005) did eventually become an aerospace engineer and worked on wind tunnel experiments before becoming an administrator, working as the Federal Women’s Program manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and as the Affirmative Action Program manager.
The movie is based on a 2014 book of the same name by the Virginia-born Margot Lee Shetterly whose father worked at the NASA-Langley Research Center. Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project in 2013, hoping to keep a record of the women who worked as research mathematicians for NASA.
According to The Human Computer Project website, when NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) transitioned to NASA, segregated facilities were abolished.
Hidden Figures provides a a positive image of women as researchers. They aren’t lonely tortured souls, but determined individuals who balanced their personal lives with their intellectual aspirations. They overcame the additional obstacle of race with poise and grace. If you know children who have questions about what practical applications math has, this movie aptly demonstrates that exploration and adventures in space are mathematical problems. Hidden Figures is about three brilliant women who thought differently. It’s a movie about breaking barriers through intelligence, and isn’t that what Mensa is about?
Hidden Figures opens in select theaters on Dec. 25, but rolls out nationwide on January 6.