Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Meet the women you don't know, behind the mission you do.


The incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.

Title Hidden Figures
Director Theodore Melfi
Director of Photography Mandy Walker
Runtime 2 h 06 min
Certification PG
Release Date 10 December 2016
Tagline Meet the women you don't know, behind the mission you do.
IMDb Id tt4846340

This film tells the story of a group of black female mathematicians who worked on the early NASA space programme. This being a time when the US was still racially segregated, the women had to endure “coloured only” bathrooms and even segregated water fountains while contributing to the space race with the Soviet Union. The film focuses on three women in particular, who are friends. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji Henson) is the most brilliant mathematician, and is drafted in to help NASA calculate flight trajectories in an age when computers were in their infancy and most calculations had to be done by hand. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wants to be an engineer but to even attend the necessary classes she needs to go to court to petition to be allowed to attend a segregated college. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is acting supervisor of a group of black “computers” carrying out manual calculations that work in an obscure corner of the NASA campus.

Not mentioned in the film is an interesting parallel in the UK’s Bletchley Park programme. A trio of Polish code-breakers had already cracked the Enigma code in 1939 and developed a mock-up of an early Enigma machine.  They shared their work with the British code-breakers, yet their major contribution was virtually ignored in later British accounts of how Enigma was broken. “Hidden Figures” tells the tale of the largely unrecognised contribution of black mathematicians to the space race.

The danger with a film like this is that it could so easily be preachy, worthy and saccharine sweet – we know that the space program went well, and that civil rights were eventually granted, so there is no storyline suspense as such. What is impressive is that the direction is so deft that the women’s stories unfold without the audience feeling lectured to. Kevin Costner as the head of the program gets to play a sympathetic role as the colour-blind head of the programme. By contrast Jim Parson’s chief engineer character feels threatened by the evident talent of Katherine Johnson, and belittles her at every opportunity. Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jackson’s boss similarly ignores the evidently talented Ms Jackson’s patient attempts to gain recognition as the supervisor of her group of “computers”.

The women gradually overcome the obstacles put in front of them and soldier on with dignity in the face of the considerable racism they encounter. Despite a 127 minute running time the film positively skips along and at no time does the plot drag. It is a tear-jerking, feel-good delight, a real achievement given the potentially treacle-like subject matter. It deserves all the many awards nominations that it is getting.


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