As a child of the 1960s I was besotted with anything to do with the space race. I had all the books, watched the moon landing happen live and had the astronauts photos sticky-taped to my bedroom wall. But the miraculous and vital feats performed by the women featured in Hidden Figures was something I was completely ignorant of.
It’s one of the many things that makes Hidden Figures—which is based on a true story—such a satisfying experience.
JFK promised to put someone on the moon by the end of the decade, but firstly NASA had to get a person into space and safely back again. The political pressure increased exponentially when the USSR had Yuri Gargarin orbit the Earth and successfully return.
NASA needed brave men like John Glenn and Alan Shepard to don the spacesuits, but more than that they needed the ‘maths’ to make sure, among other things, the trajectories and speeds of the blast off and re-entry were correct.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are employed by NASA as ‘computers’, women hired as low-level checkers and cleaners of the work of the engineers of the upper echelon (this was long before actual computers). They are talented and work hard, but are capable of much better and, ultimately, more vital work.
Their struggle for recognition is increased by the fact that they are African-American and living in the 1960s US South where day-to-day segregation included separate bathrooms, drinking fountains and even coffee pots for ‘coloureds’.
Katherine is a maths genius who nonchalantly tackles the most difficult algorithm thrown at her by maths boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) or narky senior engineer Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang). Mary wants to be a qualified engineer, but the classes are strictly ‘whites only’. Dorothy faithfully leads the group of ‘computers’ without formal recognition of appointment as supervisor.
When IBM turns up with big machines with tape and punch cards, Dorothy sees the writing on the wall for herself and the girls and decides to bone up on Fortran (programming language) in an attempt to be one of NASA’s first computer programmers.
Most of the film is taken up with Katherine’s story as she quietly but surely becomes a hero of the fledgling space program with John Glenn insisting that she personally ‘check the figures’ before he blasts off.
Hidden Figures is a bright and sharp-looking film with appropriately understated fashion and set design. It was shot by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker who is known for Australia and Tracks.
The filmmakers approach history respectfully, but also give it a light touch without losing the ironic message that while enormous progress was happening towards the heavens, it was a very different story on planet Earth.
Highlight: a salient and entertaining piece of history
Red flags: mild themes, coarse language