Hidden Figures Movie: Summary and Analysis Essay Example

Hidden figures movie summary, hidden figures analysis, distortion of real events, hidden figures movie review, works cited.

Hidden Figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi) is a movie that will simultaneously inspire and make people angry at the injustice African-American women face both in professional and daily life. The main characters of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan worked at NASA and saw many opportunities for their professional growth; however, their bosses and colleagues did not offer these women support, nor did they respect their dignity since they were all African-American. Key characters included in the analysis will be Katherine and her supervisor Al Harrison in scenes about “colored” restrooms. Both arguments will build upon Bonevac’s principle of giving a statement first, providing evidence, and then making a conclusion (64). In the essay, two main arguments will be made based on the events described in the movie: While the women’s colleagues at NASA did see the potential in them and tried to eliminate barriers that prevented African-American women from being treated as equal to other members of the staff, the movie distorted some real-life events and painted an image of NASA as an inclusive workplace (run by white men) where women of color could successfully work.

First, NASA’s steps to accommodate Katherine, Mary, Dorothy, and other women of color will be discussed. A crucial scene to analyze in this case is the removal of a “colored bathroom” sign. Invited to contribute to the Space Task Group due to her brilliant skills in analytic geometry, Katherine had to work in a building where there were no restrooms for African-American women. At the time, such a simple accommodation as a bathroom was highly segregated, which meant that Katherine could not visit any other restroom than for Blacks. Every day, she had to run across the entire campus to go to a “colored bathroom.” When confronted with the question of where she was going every day for forty minutes, Katherine broke down and gave the brilliant “there are no restrooms for me here” speech, in which she mentioned how hard she was working, how low her payment was, and how difficult it became to run half a mile every day just to relieve herself (Melfi).

After listening to her speech, the Group’s supervisor, Al Harrison, decided that it was time for a change and knocked down the “colored bathroom” sign saying, “No more colored restrooms, no more white restrooms […] We all be the same color” (Melfi). If to use the U.S. Constitution to support the analysis, it is important to mention three specific points: the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution declared an end to slavery, the Fourteenth made the freed slaves citizens of the country, and the Fifteenth provided the right to vote to all races. In this case, it can be beneficial to quote the Fourteenth Amendment: “Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (“14th Amendment”). It is clear that segregated bathrooms limited women’s freedom and forced them to comply with the state of affairs that was not fair to them as citizens of the United States. When destroying the “colored bathroom” sign, Mr. Harrison wanted to show that NASA had to step forward and protect the freedom of its employees regardless of their skin color. After this event, male workers became much more tolerant and accepted of their African-American colleagues and even erased some of their previous mistakes, such as placing a “colored” coffee pot that was brought to the Space Task Group’s office after Katherine had joined the team.

If to make a counter-argument to the analysis above, it is essential to mention that the movie was “white-washed” to some degree in order to elevate the role of white people in the struggle for equality in the workplace. Sadly, many events depicted in the movie, including the bathroom scene, simply did not happen. While the film was biographical and followed the real life of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, it was also based on a book, Hidden Figures , written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The writer acknowledged that the scene in which the character of Al Harrison knocked down the sign did not occur in real life; moreover, interviews with African-American women who worked at NASA at that time revealed that Katherine Johnson refused to enter colored bathrooms anyway and visited those for white employees, which suggests that the entire scene was made up for achieving a dramatic effect.

Thus, it can be stated that despite the fact that Hidden Figures made an attempt to raise the question of racial inequality in such highly regarded institutions as NASA, it did not depict events that occurred in the characters’ lives truthfully. Here arises a question of why such a choice was made and why the director decided to give white men a more significant role in the fight for workplace equality at NASA than they actually had. It all goes down to one thing: pleasing viewers. Neither white nor African-American viewers would have liked to see that inequality persisted and that the representatives of the majority did nothing to address it.

It is important to mention that the events in the movie took place three years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declared that discrimination and segregation were prohibited: “to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes” (“Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964)”). Therefore, it can be concluded that despite the provision of the Civil Rights Act that did not support segregation and discrimination in the workplace, NASA continued to limit the freedom of its African-American female employees on the basis of prejudice. While Hidden Figures did a great job of depicting inequalities, the attempts of the movie to distort the real image were, first of all, disrespectful to the women who had to work under oppressive workplace rules that hindered their success and productivity.

Hidden Figures is a brilliant movie that sheds light on the issue of workplace inequality and the barriers that African-American women had to overcome to achieve success. The film should be praised for the dramatic depiction of events and powerful monologues that relate to the struggles of women of color. However, despite the dramatic effect, the real-life events in Katherine Goble’s, Mary Jackson’s, and Dorothy Vaughan’s lives were distorted in order to elevate the role of white men in the battle against inequality while in reality the women were still limited in their powers and could not enjoy the same freedoms that their colleagues had.

Bonevac, Daniel. “Making Moral Arguments.” Focused Inquiry True Stories Narrative and Understanding , edited by Hayden-McNeil, Hayden-McNeil, 2015, pp. 64-71.

“ 14th Amendment .” Law Cornell , Web.

Melfi, Theofore, director. Hidden Figures . Twentieth Century Fox, 2016.

“ Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964) .” Our Documents , Web.

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I’ve been a computer programmer for 29-1/2 years, so I suppose I would be a tad biased toward a film that uses FORTRAN as a means of exacting socially relevant revenge. In “Hidden Figures,” the FORTRAN punch cards coded by Dorothy Vaughan ( Octavia Spencer ) prove that she is not only qualified to be the first employee supervisor of color in the space program, but that her “girls” (as she calls them) have the skills to code the IBM mainframe under her tutelage. Vaughan’s victory comes courtesy of the programming manual she had to lift from the segregated library that vengefully refused to loan it to her because it wasn’t in the “colored section.” When her shocked daughter protests her unconventional borrowing methods, Vaughan tells her, “I pay my taxes for this library just like everybody else!”

Vaughan is one of the three real-life African-American women who helped decipher and define the mathematics used during the space race in the 1960s. “Hidden Figures” tells their stories with some of the year’s best writing, directing and acting. Co-writer/director Theodore Melfi (adapting Margot Lee Shetterly's book with co-writer Allison Schroeder) has a light touch not often found in dramas like this, which makes the material all the more effective. He knows when to let a visual cue or cut tell the story, building on moments of repetition before paying off with scenes of great power. For example, to depict the absurdity of segregated bathrooms, Melfi repeats shots of a nervously tapping foot, followed by mile-long runs to the only available bathroom. This running joke culminates in a brilliantly acted, angry speech by Taraji P. Henson that is her finest cinematic moment to date.

Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who, in the film’s opening flashback, is shown to have a preternatural affinity for math in her youth. Her success at obtaining the education she needs is hindered by Jim Crow, but she still manages to earn degrees in math and a job at NASA’s “Colored Computer” division. In an attempt to beat Russia to the moon, NASA has been looking for the nation’s best mathematicians. The importance of the space race forces them to accept qualified candidates of any stripe, including those society would normally discourage.

We meet the adult version of Johnson as she’s sitting in Vaughan’s stalled car with her NASA colleague Mary Jackson ( Janelle Monae ). The dialogue between the three women establishes their easy rapport with one another, and introduces their personalities. Vaughan is no-nonsense, Jackson is a wise ass with impeccable comic timing and Johnson is the clever optimist. They are similarly educated, though each has their own skill set the film will explore.

Vaughan’s mechanical skills are highlighted first: Spencer’s legs jut out from underneath her broken down car as she applies the trade taught to her by her father. Her supervisory expertise is also on display when a police officer shows up to investigate. Though the cop situation is resolved in an amusing, joyous fashion, “Hidden Figures” never undercuts the fears and oppressions of this era. They’re omnipresent even when we don’t see them, and the film develops a particular rhythm between problems and solutions that is cathartic without feeling forced.

At the request of Vaughan’s supervisor ( Kirsten Dunst ), Johnson is sent to a room full of White male mathematicians to assist in some literal rocket science. The calculations have stumped everyone, including Paul Stafford ( Jim Parsons ), the hotshot whose math Johnson is hired to check. Parsons is a bit of a weak link here—his petulance, while believable, is overplayed to the point of cartoonish villainy—but the overall attitude in the room made me shudder with bad memories of my own early career tribulations. I’ve been the only person of color in a less than inviting work environment, and many of Henson’s delicate acting choices vis-à-vis her body language held the eerie feeling of sense memory for me. Though she remains confident in her work and presents that confidence whenever questioned, Henson manifests on her person every hit at her dignity. You can see her trying to hold herself in check instead of going full-Cookie Lyon on her colleagues.

In addition to the unwelcome men in the room, Johnson also has to deal with the tough, though fair complaints of her grizzled supervisor, Al Harrison ( Kevin Costner ). Costner is a perfect fit here; he should consider running out the rest of his career in supporting mentor roles. He and Henson play off each other with an equal sense of bemusement, and when the film gives him something noble to do, it hides the cliché under the nostalgic sight of “ Bull Durham ”'s Crash Davis holding a baseball bat.

While Johnson tries to keep John Glenn (charmingly played by Glen Powell ) from exploding atop a rocket and Vaughan fights FORTRAN and Dunst for the right to be a supervisor, Janelle Monae is secretly walking off with the picture. Mary Jackson wants to be the first Black engineer at NASA, yet as with Vaughan’s library book, she’s hindered by Jim Crow practices. Jackson takes her case to court, and the scene where Monae wordlessly reacts to the outcome is one of the year’s best. With this and “ Moonlight ,” Monae has established herself as a fine actress able to handle both comedy and drama. The awards praise for Spencer is certainly justified, but Monae is the film’s true supporting player MVP.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about how I would have felt had I seen this movie 30 years ago, when I made the decision to study math and computer science. I might have felt more secure in that decision, and certainly would have had better ideas on how to handle some of the thorny racial situations into which I found myself. The strange thing for me is that I saw more Black programmers in this movie than I’ve encountered in my entire career. I had few points of reference in this regard, and the I.T. world reflects that. Even today, some of my customers look at me funny when I show up to fix the problem.

Hopefully, “Hidden Figures” will inspire women and people of color (and hell, men too) with its gentle assertion that there’s nothing unusual nor odd about people besides White men being good at math. But my secret fantasy is that this feel-good film will be a huge hit at the box office. Under its great acting, bouncy Pharrell score and message is a film that’s as geeked out about math as a superhero film is about its comic book origins. So much so that it does my mathematician’s heart proud. It deserves to make as much money as any planet in the Marvel Universe does. This is one of the year's best films.

Odie Henderson

Odie Henderson

Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent over 33 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire  here .

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Hidden Figures movie poster

Hidden Figures (2016)

127 minutes

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn

Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson

Kevin Costner as Al Harrison

Aldis Hodge as Levi Jackson

Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Michael

Glen Powell as John Glenn

Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson

Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford

Olek Krupa as Karl Zielinski

  • Theodore Melfi

Writer (based on the book by)

  • Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Allison Schroeder


  • Mandy Walker
  • Peter Teschner
  • Benjamin Wallfisch
  • Pharrell Williams
  • Hans Zimmer

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“Hidden Figures” Is a Subtle and Powerful Work of Counter-History

By Richard Brody

Katherine Johnson  Dorothy Vaughan  and Mary Jackson  in “Hidden Figures.”

The basic virtue of “Hidden Figures” (which opens on December 25th), and it’s a formidable one, is to proclaim with a clarion vibrancy that, were it not for the devoted, unique, and indispensable efforts of three black women scientists, the United States might not have successfully sent people into space or to the moon and back. The movie is set mainly in 1961 and 1962, in Virginia, where a key NASA research center was (and is) based, and the movie is aptly and thoroughly derisive toward the discriminatory laws and practices that prevailed at the time.

The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA , unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. Those segregationist rules and norms—and the personal attitudes and actions that sustained them—are unfolded with a clear, forceful, analytical, and unstinting specificity. The efforts of black Virginians to cope with relentless ambient racism and, where possible, to point it out, resist it, overcome it, and even defeat it are the focus of the drama. “Hidden Figures” is a film of calm and bright rage at the way things were—an exemplary reproach to the very notion of political nostalgia. It depicts repugnant attitudes and practices of white supremacy that poisoned earlier generations’ achievements and that are inseparable from those achievements.

“Hidden Figures” is a subtle and powerful work of counter-history, or, rather, of a finally and long-deferred accurate history, that fills in the general outlines of these women’s roles in the space program. Its redress of the record begins in West Virginia in 1926, where the sixth-grade math prodigy Katherine Coleman is given a scholarship to a school that one of her teachers refers to as the only one in the region for black children that goes beyond the eighth grade. She quickly displays her genius there—but the school’s narrow horizons suggests the sharply limited opportunities for black people over all.

The nature of those limits is indicated in the very next scene, which cuts ahead to a lonely road in Virginia in 1961. There, a car is stalled, its hood open. Katherine is there with her two other African-American friends and colleagues. She’s sitting pensively in the passenger seat; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is beneath the engine, trying to fix it; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is standing impatiently beside the car. A police cruiser approaches. They tense up; Dorothy says, “No crime in a broken-down car,” and Mary responds, “No crime being Negro, neither.” Their fearful interaction with the officer—a white man, of course, with a billy club in hand and a condescending bearing—is resolved with a comedic moment brought about by the women’s deferential irony. What emerges, however, is nothing less than an instance in a reign of terror.

Dorothy is the manager and de-facto supervisor of a group of “computers”—about thirty black women, all skilled mathematicians—that includes Katherine and Mary. Dorothy is awaiting a formal promotion to supervisor, but a talk with a senior administrator makes clear that it’s not to be; the clear but unspoken reason is her race. (Tellingly, Dorothy addresses that official, played by Kirsten Dunst, as “Mrs. Mitchell,” who, in turn, calls her by her first name.) Mary, endowed with engineering skill, is summoned to a team led by an engineer named Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Polish-Jewish émigré who escaped the Holocaust and who encourages her to seek formal certification as an engineer. To do so, Mary will have to take additional classes—but the only school that offers them is a segregated one, whites-only, from which she’s barred.

When NASA astronauts ceremoniously arrive at the research center, the black women “computers” are forced to stand together as a separate group, conspicuously divided from the other scientists. (Only John Glenn, played by Glen Powell, greets them, and does so warmly, shaking their hands and lingering to chat with them about their work.)

As for Katherine—now Katherine Goble, the widowed mother of three young girls—she’s plucked from the pool of mathematicians to join the main research group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). There, she’s the only black person and the only woman (other than the secretary, played by Kimberly Quinn). She once again rapidly displays her mathematical genius, but not before being taken for the department custodian; forced to drink from a coffeepot labelled “colored”; treated dismissively by the lead researcher, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons); and compelled to walk a half-mile to her former office in order to use the “colored ladies’ room.” (Moreover, the contrast between that depleted and dilapidated facility and the well-appointed and welcoming white-women’s bathroom proves the meaning of “separate but unequal.”)

Each of the three women has a particular conflict to confront, a particular focus in the struggle for equality. Mary’s struggle takes place in a public forum: she petitions a Virginia state court for permission to take the needed night classes in a segregated school. She’s not represented by a lawyer, and speaks on her own behalf; but, rather than making her case in open court, she makes a personal plea to the judge that’s as much about him and his outlook as it is about her, and her work and its usefulness. What her plea isn’t about is law, rights, or justice.

The omission is no accident; it’s set up by dramatic contrast with the angry insistence of Mary’s husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), a civil-rights activist, that she not bother pursuing a job as an engineer: “You can’t apply for freedom. . . . It’s got to be demanded, taken.” Mary says that there’s “more than one way” to get opportunities, but the deck of this debate is stacked by the terms in which Levi couches it, saying that there’s no such thing as a woman engineer—at least, not a black one—and blaming her for not being home often enough to take proper care of their children.

Dorothy’s pursuit of a formal promotion to supervisor also takes place against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement. She learns that her entire department of human “computers” will soon be replaced by an electronic computer—an enormous I.B.M. mainframe that’s being installed. A gifted technician, Dorothy seeks out a book from the local library (a segregated library from which she’s thrown out), in which she’ll learn the programming language Fortran; she soon becomes NASA ’s resident expert. On that trip to the library, in the company of her two sons on the cusp of adolescence, they witness a protest by civil-rights activists chanting “segregation must go” and see police officers, with police dogs, approaching the protesters. Dorothy and her sons pause and look, until she tells them to “pay attention that we’re not part of that trouble.” But, sitting in the back of the bus with them, she emphasizes that “separate and equal aren’t the same thing,” and adds, “If you act right, you are right.”

Katherine, too, fights for her dignity and for opportunities at work. Her calculations very soon prove indispensable to the effort to put the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into outer space. (The scene in which she displays her calculations to the entire office of scientists features a small but brilliant stroke of film editing, which suggests that she envisioned the effect of that bold step before she took it.) She’s fighting prejudice against blacks, against women (none has ever been admitted to a Pentagon briefing, where she can get the information she needs for her analyses), and against bureaucracy itself. Paul, who has been the department’s resident genius, and to whom she reports, is resentful of his subordinate—a black woman, for good measure—outshining him in mathematical talent and analytical insight.

Eventually, upbraided by the head of the department, Al, in the presence of the entire staff, Katherine explodes with rage, setting forth the full litany of indignities to which she’s subjected because of her skin color, before storming out. But this sublimely righteous outburst is posed on a solid meritocratic basis. Katherine isn’t the only black woman to have worked in the main research department under Al; there has been a veritable parade of black women “computers” stationed in that department, and each has been found wanting and has been sent back to the pool. As a result, none has effected any change in the status of black employees or of women at NASA . Katherine’s outburst is effective because Katherine, unlike her predecessors, is indispensable. Taking her claims to heart, Al plays a heroic role, championing Katherine’s work and treating her with due respect—but his heroism is a conditional and practical one, spurred by his single-minded devotion to the space program.

In “Hidden Figures,” the civil-rights movement isn’t just a barely sketched backdrop; it’s in virtual competition with the efforts in personal advancement and achievement heroically made by the three women at the center of the film. In the movie, the three women never speak directly of civil rights. In the warmhearted romance at the center of the movie—Katherine’s relationship with Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali)—the subject never comes up. (Katherine Johnson is now ninety-eight; a title card at the end of the film declares that she and Johnson recently celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary.) The movie presents three women whose life experiences have been extraordinary; their work, their personal lives, and their struggle for justice are uncompromisingly heroic. What the movie is missing, above all, is their voices.

These women are not in any way submissive or passive. On the contrary, each one speaks up and takes action at great personal risk. (For instance, Dorothy steals a book that the library won't let her borrow and then speaks sharply to the guard who hustles her and her sons out.) The movie's emphasis on individual action and achievement in the face of vast obstacles is both beautiful and salutary, but its near-effacement of collective organization and political activity at a time when they were at their historical apogee—for that matter, its elision of politics as such—narrows the drama and, all the more grievously, the characters at its center.

What the women at the center of “Hidden Figures” lived through in their youth, in the deep age of Jim Crow, and, later, at a time of protest and of legal change, remains unspoken; their wisdom and insight remain unexpressed. For all the emotional power and historical redress of the movie—above all, in the simple recognition of the centrality of its three protagonists to the modern world—it pushes to the fore a moderation, based solely on personal accomplishment, in pursuit of justice. This is different from the civil-rights goal of a universal equality based on humanity alone, extended to the ordinary as well as to the exceptional. This is, by no means, a complaint about the real-life people on whom the movie is based; it’s purely a matter of aesthetics, a result of decisions by the director and screenwriter, Theodore Melfi, and his co-writer, Allison Schroeder, about how they imagined and developed the characters. (I found myself thinking, by contrast, of recently published stories by the late filmmaker Kathleen Collins , with their incisive observations regarding participants and observers of civil-rights activism.)

Melfi and Schroeder are white; perhaps they conceived the film to be as nonthreatening to white viewers as possible, or perhaps they anticipated that it would be released at a time of promised progress. Instead, it’s being released in a time of resurgent, unabashed racism. The time for protest has returned; for all the inspired celebration of hitherto unrecognized black heroes that “Hidden Figures” offers, and all the retrospective outrage that “Hidden Figures” sparks, I can only imagine the movie as it might have been made, much more amply, imaginatively, and resonantly, linking history and the present tense, by Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee, Julie Dash or Charles Burnett.

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What Sets the Smart Heroines of Hidden Figures Apart

Movies about brilliant scientific or mathematical minds often focus on their subject’s ego—not so with a new film about three African American women who worked at NASA in the ’60s.

When it comes to historical movies about brilliant minds, especially in the realms of math or the sciences, audiences can all but expect a tale of ego. Films such as A Beautiful Mind , The Theory of Everything , and The Imitation Game all lean in some way on the idea of the inaccessible genius—a mathematician, computer scientist, and theoretical physicist all somehow removed from the world.

Hidden Figures is not that kind of film: It’s a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It’s a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory. Set in 1960s Virginia, the film centers on three pioneering African American women whose calculations for NASA were integral to several historic space missions, including John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. These women—Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—were superlative mathematicians and engineers despite starting their careers in segregation-era America and facing discrimination at home, at school, and at work.

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And yet Hidden Figures pays tribute to its subjects by doing the opposite of what many biopics have done in the past—it looks closely at the remarkable person in the context of a community. Directed by Theodore Melfi ( St. Vincent ) and based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film celebrates individual mettle, but also the way its characters consistently try to lift others up.  They’re phenomenal at what they do, but they’re also generous with their time, their energy, and their patience in a way that feels humane, not saintly. By refracting the overlooked lives and accomplishments of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson through this lens, Hidden Figures manages to be more than an inspiring history lesson with wonderful performances.

From the start, Hidden Figures makes clear that it is about a trio, not a lone heroine. Katherine (played by a radiant Taraji P. Henson) is the film’s ostensible protagonist and gets the most screen time. But her story is woven tightly with those of Mary (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer); the former became NASA’s first black female engineer , the latter was a mathematician who became NASA’s first African American manager . (It’s worth noting that, as a dramatization, the film makes tweaks to the timeline, characters, and events of the books.)

Hidden Figures begins in earnest in 1961. Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy are part of NASA’s pool of human “computers” —employees, usually women, charged with doing calculations before the use of digital computers. Due to Virginia’s segregation laws, African American female computers have to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. But the U.S. is so desperate to beat the Soviet Union into space that NASA becomes a reluctant meritocracy: Because of her expertise in analytic geometry, Katherine is assigned to a special task group trying to get Glenn into orbit. She arrives at her new job to find she’s the sole brown face in the room.

Katherine is closest to the excitement, but Hidden Figures widens its scope beyond her. Mary must navigate layers of racist bureaucratic hurdles in her quest to become an engineer. Dorothy is fighting for a long overdue promotion, while the arrival of an IBM machine threatens to put her team of computers out of work. The women consistently out-think their higher-ranked (usually white, male) colleagues, whether by learning a new programming language, solving problems in wind-tunnel experiments, or calculating narrow launch windows for space missions. Each is uniquely aware of the broader stakes of her success—for other women, for black people, for black women, and for America at large—and this knowledge is as much an inspiration as it is a heavy weight.

Early on, Dorothy shares her ambivalence about Katherine’s prestigious new assignment. “Any upward movement is movement for us all. It’s just not movement for me,” she says, disappointed after a setback at work. It’s a subtle, but loaded point, and one of the most thought-provoking lines in the film. Of course she’s proud of Katherine, and of course Katherine is paving the way for others. But individual victories are often simply that—Katherine knocking down one pillar of discrimination doesn’t mean countless more don’t remain. Still, Dorothy’s frustration with her stagnation at work doesn’t translate to defeatism or selfishness. She spends much of the film maneuvering to protect her team’s jobs, even if it means risking her own status and security.

Their intellect may not be broadly relatable (again, they’re exceptional for a reason), but their sense of rootedness is. Though most of their time and energy go to their careers, the women of Hidden Figures don’t take their relationships with each other and with their friends and families for granted. If one gets held up at work for hours, the other two wait in the parking lot until they can all drive home. On the weekends, they go to church and neighborhood barbecues and spend time with their children. They don’t “have it all,” but they do strive for balance and connection. (Another “feel-good film” from 2016, Queen of Katwe , also used the concept of community and interdependence to undermine the built-up notion of isolated talent.)

Despite the racism and sexism Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary face, Hidden Figures is a decidedly un-somber affair. The breezy script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder opts not to dwell much on the particulars of aeronautical science; instead, it revels in the intelligence and warmth of its subjects, in their successes both in and out of the office, and it wants viewers to do so too. Hidden Figures doesn’t hide its efforts to be a crowdpleaser—depending on audience size, you can expect clapping and cheering after moments of victory, and loud groans whenever egregious acts of racism take place (there are many). A buoyant soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch and regular doses of comic relief help keep the tone light and optimistic despite the serious issues at hand.

Rounding out Hidden Figures ’ all-star cast are Kevin Costner, as Katherine’s boss and eventual ally; an appropriately un-funny Jim Parsons as a new colleague of Katherine’s who can barely tolerate her presence; Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s manager and the epitome of the racist-who-thinks-she’s-not type; Glen Powell as an affable John Glenn; and Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s kindly love interest, Jim Johnson. Because of the engaging performances that Henson, Monáe, and Spencer give, each main character is fascinating to watch in her own right. But it’s their dynamic that makes it a joy to see them onscreen together.

Hidden Figures doesn’t try to push many artistic boundaries, but it tells its story so well that it doesn’t really have to. The film also avoids the most glaring missteps of historical movies that deal with race: At no point does it try to give viewers the impression that racism has been “solved,” and its white characters exist on a constantly shifting spectrum of racial enlightenment. What’s more, the film’s straightforward presentation belies its fairly radical subject matter. As K. Austin Collins notes at The Ringer , Hidden Figures “might be one of the few Hollywood movies about the civil rights era to imagine that black lives in the ’60s, particularly black women’s lives, were affected not only by racism but also by the space race and the Cold War.”

The Hidden Figures author, Shetterly, has discussed how the film only portrays a fraction of the individuals who worked on the space program— and how the movie was meant to speak to the experiences of the many African American women working at NASA at the time.  Watching this particular story unfurl on the big screen, it’s hard not to think of how many more movies and books could be made about women like Katherine Johnson—talented women shut out of promotions and meetings and elite programs and institutions and, thus history, because they weren’t white. Even today, barriers remain. A 2015 study found 100 percent of women of color in STEM fields report experiencing gender bias at work, an effect often influenced by their race. Black and Latina women, for example, reported being mistaken for janitors (a scene that, fittingly, takes place in Hidden Figures ).

With the complex social forces that shaped its characters’ lives still so relevant today, Hidden Figures is powerful precisely because it’s not a solo portrait or a close character study. Certainly, Hollywood will be a better industry when there are more films about the egos and personal demons and grand triumphs of black women who helped to change the world. But Hidden Figures shines with respect for sisterhood and the communistic spirit, and in casting its spotlight wide, the film imparts a profound appreciation for what was achieved in history’s shadows.


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Review: ‘Hidden Figures’ Honors 3 Black Women Who Helped NASA Soar

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By A.O. Scott

  • Dec. 22, 2016

“Hidden Figures” takes us back to 1961, when racial segregation and workplace sexism were widely accepted facts of life and the word “computer” referred to a person, not a machine. Though a gigantic IBM mainframe does appear in the movie — big enough to fill a room and probably less powerful than the phone in your pocket — the most important computers are three African-American women who work at NASA headquarters in Hampton, Va. Assigned to data entry jobs and denied recognition or promotion, they would go on to play crucial roles in the American space program.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, the film, directed by Theodore Melfi (who wrote the script with Allison Schroeder), turns the entwined careers of Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan into a rousing celebration of merit rewarded and perseverance repaid. Like many movies about the overcoming of racism, it offers belated acknowledgment of bravery and talent and an overdue reckoning with the sins of the past. And like most movies about real-world breakthroughs, “Hidden Figures” is content to stay within established conventions. The story may be new to most viewers, but the manner in which it’s told will be familiar to all but the youngest.

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This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is something to be said for a well-told tale with a clear moral and a satisfying emotional payoff. Mr. Melfi, whose previous film was the heart-tugging, borderline-treacly Bill Murray vehicle “St. Vincent,” knows how to push our emotional buttons without too heavy a hand. He trusts his own skill, the intrinsic interest of the material and — above all — the talent and dedication of the cast. From one scene to the next, you may know more or less what is coming, but it is never less than delightful to watch these actors at work.

Start with the three principals, whose struggles at NASA take place as the agency is scrambling to send an astronaut into orbit. Katherine Goble is the central hidden figure, a mathematical prodigy played with perfect nerd charisma by Taraji P. Henson. Katherine is plucked from the computing room and assigned to a team that will calculate the launch coordinates and trajectory for an Atlas rocket. She receives a cold welcome — particularly from an engineer named Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) — and is not spared the indignities facing a black woman in a racially segregated, gender-stratified workplace. The only bathroom she is allowed to use is in a distant building, and she horrifies her new co-workers when she helps herself to a cup of coffee.

Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe) also face discrimination. Dorothy, who is in charge of several dozen computers, is repeatedly denied promotion to supervisor and treated with condescension by her immediate boss (Kirsten Dunst). The Polish-born engineer (Olek Krupa) with whom Mary works is more enlightened, but Mary runs into the brick wall of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws when she tries to take graduate-level physics courses.

Movie Review: ‘Hidden Figures'

The times critic a. o. scott reviews “hidden figures.”.

In “Hidden Figures,” three African-American women play crucial rolls in the 60s space race while battling racial and gender inequality at NASA. In his review A.O. Scott writes: Like many movies about the overcoming of racism, “Hidden Figures,” offers belated acknowledgment of bravery and talent and an overdue reckoning with the sins of the past. There is something to be said for a well-told tale with a clear moral and a satisfying emotional payoff. The director Ted Melfi knows how to push our emotional buttons without too heavy a hand. He trusts his own skill, the intrinsic interest of the material and—above all—the talent and dedication of the cast. From one scene to the next, you may know more or less what is coming, but it is never less than delightful to watch these actors at work.

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“Hidden Figures” effectively conveys the poisonous normalcy of white supremacy, and the main characters’ determination to pursue their ambitions in spite of it and to live normal lives in its shadow. The racism they face does not depend on the viciousness or virtue of individual white people, and for the most part the white characters are not treated as heroes for deciding, at long last, to behave decently. Two of them, however, are singled out for commendation: John Glenn , portrayed by Glen Powell as a natural democrat with no time for racial hierarchies; and Al Harrison, the head of Katherine’s group, for whom the success of the mission is more important than color.

Kevin Costner, who plays Al, is an actor almost uniquely capable of upstaging through understatement. He is also one of the great gum-chewers in American cinema, a habit that, along with the flattop haircut and heavy-framed glasses, gives Al an aura of midcentury no-nonsense masculine competence. He desegregates the NASA bathrooms with a sledgehammer and stands up for Katherine in quieter but no less emphatic ways when her qualifications are challenged.

It’s a bit much, maybe, but Mr. Costner, as usual, does what he can to give the white men of America a good name. The movie, meanwhile, expands the schoolbook chronicle of the conquest of space beyond the usual heroes, restoring some of its idealism and grandeur in the process. It also embeds that history in daily life, departing from the televised spectacle of liftoffs and landings and the public drama of the civil rights movement to spend time with its heroines and their families at home and in church. The sweetest subplot involves the romance between Katherine, a widow with three daughters, and a handsome military officer played by Mahershala Ali.

“Hidden Figures” makes a fascinating and timely companion to “Loving,” Jeff Nichols’s film about the Virginia couple who challenged their state’s law against interracial marriage, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. The two movies take place in the same state in the same era, and focus on the quiet dramas that move history forward. They introduce you to real people you might wish you had known more about earlier. They can fill you with outrage at the persistence of injustice and gratitude toward those who had the grit to stand up against it.

Hidden Figures Rated PG. Your children should see it. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

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Hidden Figures

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Prologue-Chapter 3

Chapters 4-7

Chapters 8-13

Chapters 14-19

Chapter 20-Epilogue

Key Figures

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Summary and Study Guide

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is a 2016 nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where her father worked at Langley Research Center, on which the book is centered. Thus, she knew firsthand both the story and many of the people involved. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the business school at the University of Virginia. The book won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and Shetterly won the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction. Hidden Figures was made into a film, which also came out in 2016.

The story focuses on four African American women as examples of the many such women who worked at Langley. The title is a play on the meaning of the word “figures” in the sense of both people and numbers. Each was largely hidden from the public view: Most people think of White male astronauts when they think of NASA , and the countless mathematical calculations that lie behind the agency’s accomplishments are known only to specialists. Shetterly’s goal is to make known the stories of women like those she was acquainted with growing up.

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With a mandate to desegregate the federal workforce for the war effort during World War II, more opportunities became available for African Americans. Likewise, because so many Black and White men were away fighting the war, women had greater access to employment than ever before. Dorothy Vaughan was the first of the main characters hired as a mathematician by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (later Langley Research Center). She was one of the female African American “computers” (as they then called people who did calculations) who made up the West Computing area. She eventually rose to become head of the area for nearly a decade before it was closed.

Mary Jackson began working for Dorothy in 1951. After a couple of years, Mary joined an engineering group and would go on to become an engineer. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson joined West Computing two years after Mary, but soon joined the Flight Research Division, leading to a distinguished career that directly contributed to the space program in the 1960s. The flight trajectories she calculated were used for Project Mercury and the Moon landings of 1969 and subsequent years. Finally, Christine Darden was hired by NASA in 1967, worked in sonic boom research, and went on to earn her PhD. Each found success by persevering in the face of direct and indirect discrimination based on both their race and gender.

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In addition to the careers of the four women profiled, Shetterly tells of their personal lives—the struggles they endured on the road to success, their community involvement, and the times in which they lived. The last becomes a thread in the book, as Shetterly weaves her tale of NASA with one outlining the development of the civil rights movement. By comparing their respective trajectories in 20th-century history, she shows how the latter influenced the former and their narratives merged into one.

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Hidden Figures (2016) - Film Analysis / Review

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Hidden Figures is a 2016 film that is based on a true story about three women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA dealing with racial prejudice. This film was set in the 1960's when it was very rare to see non-white people in the roles these three women had; it was even more unlikely to see women in them. These women were working in segregated areas and it was very difficult for their talents to be seen by other people due to the barriers of their gender and race. Taraji P. Henson played the role of Katherine G. Johnson, who was the star of the film. Katherine's role was to create a new field of science for space with her group. The film also does a great job balancing the personal lives of these women while at the same time presenting their crucial roles in NASA. These women all played pivotal roles in taking down racism in the field of science. These women were all smart and had a lot to bring with the positions they held. Katherine proves to the chief how smart she was in a scene where she presented her findings of a formula and her knowledge of a classified piece of information. The chief's main concern was how she found out this important piece of information because he was certain that mathematics could not have resulted in her knowing; she told him she held the paper up to the light, when he did so he also saw the proof. His first question to this woman, due to her undeniable intelligence, was if she was a Russian spy; yes, he asked a Black Woman if she was Russian because of all that she knew. It was obvious that she was not Russian, but it was the only thing that this man could associate with her level of knowledge. To be woman during those times were hard, and to be Black was even harder. These women had to work twice as hard to be heard due to their gender, and even harder to be heard due to their color of skin. Dorothy Vaughan's role began working with computers in her position at NASA, then due to her knowledge was promoted to supervisor. Her role was pivotal because she, not only

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Home / Essay Samples / Entertainment / Hidden Figures / Hidden Figures: a Reflection on the Movie

Hidden Figures: a Reflection on the Movie

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