Actress Taraji P. Henson as real-life trajectory analyst Katherine Goble Johnson, who helped guide the first astronauts into space…and safely back again.
Those of you who regularly read my blog may remember an entry from December 9, 2016 concerning The Right Stuff (1983), a film about the astronauts involved in the Mercury project of the 1960’s. In that article, I included a video clip where astronaut John Glenn successfully accomplishes re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, despite the possibility that a heat shield on his space capsule was failing. (See “God Speed, John Glenn” December 9, 2016 blog.)
But how did Glenn get up there in the first place? In the 2016 docudrama Hidden Figures, based on Margo Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, we learn that he and other astronauts rode atop the shoulders of countless NASA engineers, mathematicians, analysts, and “computers” (people who computed figures prior to the mechanized computers with which we’re familiar today). These individuals ensured that the astronauts would successfully fly into space and come back in one piece.
Hidden Figures focuses on three of the “computers”: African-American mathematicians Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson). Although these women began their aeronautic careers in a racially segregated computing pool at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, each became a trail-blazer in her respective field: Jackson became NASA’s first female engineer; Vaughan was the first African-American female supervisor at NASA’s Langley Research Center (she later became one of the first FORTRAN programmers for machine computers in the early 1960’s); and Johnson became a specialist in calculating flight trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for several flights associated with Project Mercury. One of these was John Glenn’s celebrated 1962 mission, which marked the first time that an American astronaut orbited Earth.
None of these women achieved her goals without difficulties. First of all, they were females in a male-dominated industry. And then there’s the issue of race. We’re talking Virginia in the early 1960’s, and even the elite Langley Laboratory made sure that separate “colored” bathrooms were furnished for all African-American staff, including the mathematicians in this story.
Nevertheless, the women as portrayed in Hidden Figures overcome these challenges. Jackson successfully sues in court for a place in an all-white engineering class. Vaughan uses her mechanical know-how and resourcefulness to train herself and her fellow “computers” on FORTRAN so that they will be ready to program the new Langley computer. And Johnson uses her determination and raw talent to help make the Glenn mission a resounding success.
All three principle actresses in Hidden are great, and the interplay among them is entertaining and full of camaraderie. I found Taraji Henson’s performance the most interesting and compelling. Her character comes across as a modest but gritty woman who refuses to let the establishment at Langley exploit her talents without giving credit for work accomplished.
Keep in mind that this is a docudrama, not a documentary. Therefore, scenes have been included in Hidden which are not historically accurate. This is the nature of the docudrama; the genre requires that filmmakers balance authenticity with enough drama and interest to draw an audience. I can tell you that the backstory of the three principle characters is consistent with Shetterly’s bio and other sources I’ve reviewed.
One additional note: I am delighted to report that the film is rated PG, for very mild swearing and romantic situations (within a loving, pro-marriage context). So please take your 10+ year old children to see it. So many of our kids at one time or another want to be astronauts. Hidden Figures makes the mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers as exciting as John Glenn and his colleagues.
Margo Lee Shetterly is the daughter of an African- American research scientist who worked at NASA-Langley Research Center. Through her father, Shetterly learned about the women featured in this film.
Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, can be purchased on amazon.com through the following link:
There is also a version of this book written especially for young people. You can purchase it on amazon.com through the following link:
Pluses: Good plot development, excellent performances by Spencer, Monae, and especially Henson, scientific explanations easy for laypersons to understand, exciting buildup to the Glenn flight.
Minus: Some liberties taken in terms of certain events in the movie (in comparison to Shetterly’s book). However, the backstories to the main characters are consistent with available biographical sources.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Rating: PG (mild swearing along the lines of “Damn!” and “Jesus Christ!” Romantic scenes within a loving, pro-marriage context).
Length: 2 hours 7 minutes
Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow (2016)
“Katherine Johnson.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 January 2017. Web. 28 January 2017.
“Dorothy Vaughan.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 26 January 2017. Web. 28 January 2017.
“Mary Jackson.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 January 2017. Web. 28 January 2017.
Common Sense Media, commonsensemedia.org. Common Sense Media is a San Francisco based non-profit organization providing information about safe technology and media for children. The organization rates books, movies, TV shows, video games, apps, music, and websites. Ratings for each entry are provided by both parents and children. Ratings from both children and adults highly rate Hidden Figures.