ReviewsTelevision & Film

HIDDEN FIGURES has All the Right Math

Hidden Figures
Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Directed by Theodore Melfi
20th Century Fox
Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly

Run, don’t walk, to see this movie. It’s inspiring, uplifting, and happens to be a darned good movie.

I had never heard of the three protagonists until the movie was advertised, and until one of them was featured on the “Space Race” episode of the time traveling show Timeless. It’s a travesty that Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) , Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are not taught about in history class. Hidden Figures is the story of how they contributed to the space race despite obstacles of sexism and racism.

It’s the small obstacles that weigh you down. Okay, it’s the large obstacles, too, like actually getting admitted to a university or getting a court order to attend an all white school. But having to move the family every year so that they can attend a school that goes past eighth grade but the father can keep his job, or having to go across the Langley campus to find a colored bathroom, or even just wearing heels is a handicap that keeps the playing field from being level. Early in the movie when I saw the women wearing skirts (always past the knee) and high heels I thought about how sexist those heels were. Not five minutes later they nearly killed one of the characters, Mary Jackson.

There are no real villains in this story. Most of the conflict is between man and outer space. Or maybe it’s mankind versus math. Two characters who were created for the movie exemplify the sexism and racism of the time. Jim Parson’s character, Paul Stafford, is a man of his time. Driven by racism, sexism, and a tinge of jealousy because Katherine is a better mathematician than he is, he starts out the movie putting obstacles in her way. He does a wonderful, nuanced job of playing a character who is slightly less nerdy his Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. There were a couple of times when I thought he was going to turn into Sheldon on the spot, but it never happened. Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) does her best to keep Dorothy Vaughan in her place, even though they share some of the same problems and concerns.

Even though we are both about to lose our jobs to the IBM machine, I have no intention of banding together. (Pic from IMDB)

Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, is a composite of three different directors that were in charge during the time that Katherine worked at Langley. He supported Katherine and paved her way, when he became aware of problems, not because of idealism but because those issues got in the way of his single-minded obsession with getting a man into space and retrieving him safely. He also respected her genius. I’m not a big fan of Costner, but his performance was perfect.

John Glenn (Glenn Powell) was a charmer. I can see how he did well in public life after the space program, if he was anything like he was in the movie.

Mr. Personality, John Glenn. (pic from IMDB)

The three principal characters were well played. Mary Jackson chafed under the injustice of institutional racism more than the others and had a snarky attitude. Sometimes she seemed a little too ditzy to be as intelligent as the real life character was. Maybe she was also like that in real life. Dorothy Vaughan was bossy, smart and adaptable. She realized that she needed to learn to run the new computers that were taking over their jobs, and she taught FORTRAN to her girls as well. She pushed until she finally got the title (and hopefully the pay) for a job she was already doing.

The Right Stuff

But Taraji P. Henson did the most amazing job. Katherine Johnson is caught between confidence in her genius and accepting terrible treatment just to be part of the mission.  Henson portrays the cognitive dissonance that the different roles in Katherine Johnson’s life caused beautifully.

Katherine, who stays silent so many times just to stay in her job, puts up with no disrespect when a suitor doubts her capabilities. Unlike the people she works with, this is someone that she doesn’t have to stay silent around. She is proud of what she does and ends her little rant with “And it’s not because we wear skirts, it’s because we wear glasses!” My favorite line in the movie. To clarify, the women who computed were sometimes called “computers with skirts”. The audience needed to hear that. Katherine speaks up for herself seldom, and only when she has to or she is under extreme duress. That interaction shows how she really feels under her calm exterior.

I didn’t know that people were ever called computers. It makes sense, they were doing computations. In today’s world, it would mean something different, as familiar as we are with computers. In the past, it was like having a steno pool for math.

Watching John Glenn’s flight. (Picture from IMDB)

They used real footage from the space missions and news footage from the time as well instead of trying to recreate them. They were used appropriately, such as having a character watch a mission unfold on TV. When it was real time in the story they acted it out, such as having the actor playing John Glenn in the capsule and interacting with mission control. The old footage always fit and didn’t bring us out of the story.

The women were not as hidden as the movie might lead us to believe. Mary Jackson received many awards over her long career at Langley .Katherine Johnson received awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2016, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was dedicated on the anniversary of Alan Shephard’s splashdown. Of course, these recognitions were long after the time depicted in Hidden Figures.

Hidden Figures was based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Because the movie was optioned on a 55 page treatment for the book, it was finished before the book was published in 2016. This is likely to have made for some differences between the book and the movie. I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know for certain.

It’s a good movie, well crafted. If there was a sour note in the entire movie, I didn’t hear it.



Teresa Wickersham

Teresa Wickersham has dabbled in fanfic, gone to a few conventions, created some award-winning (and not so award winning) masquerade costumes, worked on the Save Farscape campaign, and occasionally presents herself as a fluffy bunny or a Krampus.

2 thoughts on “HIDDEN FIGURES has All the Right Math

  • One thing I think they did right for this inspiring, uplifting story of three unsung heroes (to the outside world) of the space program is, the tone they set. Many obstacles were there for Katherine, Mary and Dorothy, but the prejudices (both racist and sexist) were never played out in the story in an ugly way. You could still be astounded at police being called because there was a colored woman in the white section of the library — and appalled that Mary had to go to court to get permission to take classes at an all-white high school — but they were presented as challenges that these women overcame. They could have been darker (and maybe more honest — as a white Westerner, I really don’t know) with these realities of life in the Jim Crow South, but that would have taken away from the story they were trying to tell, and might also have put off some potential white audience members. I’m not sure I’ve made myself clear here at all, but I’m just saying I think they made the right choice focusing on the women and the math and the problem of getting a man not just up into space, but back down. You still got exposed to what they fought against, but the focus was on what they accomplished.

  • You know, I was thinking about this very thing today. Not when I was writing the review, but later. I thought, you COULD fault the movie on not being gritty or dark enough. For instance, I don’t remember there being any sexual harassment in the movie. It’s common enough NOW that most women have experienced it. Much worse things could have happened to them or their family members because of racism. Not getting paid enough-although none of them looked like they were really poor-has worse effects than car pooling and having your car break down. But I didn’t want them to be too harsh or real. I want to see the people who put a man on the moon in a certain way. (the coffee pot was bad enough). I want the uplifting ending and the focus on what they accomplished.


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