American Congress created the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915 and its Virginia lab at Langley Field established in 1917, gradually became an important hub for creative ideas, helping to fuel the aviation boom of the early twentieth century.
The real facts behind those integral to winning the race that put the first American astronaut on the moon in the 60’s, is delivered first in a non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterley, Hidden Figures, which also lays bare the discriminatory laws and prejudicial practices prevailing at the time.
In the biographical drama now a heart-warming new film Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Theodore Nelfi and Allison Schroeder based on Shetterley’s book, we discover how persistence and earning their peer’s respect helped one very special group of women working at Langley Field.
They are successful in winning the first battle in the war on prejudice, which is now rearing its head again, as the time for protest has returned to haunt our dreams and reality. If anything at all, Hidden Figures proves that racism and prejudice must be overcome.
Chosen by National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2016, Hidden Figures has been nominated for three Oscars; Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It also recently won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a cast in a Motion Picture.
What is amazing about Hidden Figures is it is only now, some fifty years later we are hearing how America wouldn’t have achieved the impossible if it wasn’t for a defining group of wonderful women who began working in NACA’s segregated West Area Computing section 1949-1953.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.
Today we know that when NACA became NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after 1958 when it was also given new leadership and became the place where the fight against prejudice in America took a turn for the better.
The group of women recruited to work at Langley Field were chosen because they were all above average at mathematics. However they were also with their peers, segregated in their own building with their own facilities appallingly labelled ‘coloured’.
Hidden Figures brings us the extraordinary story of three trail blazing luminaries from the West Area Computing section, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) who are friends in life. Together they have to fight prejudice and dissent at every turn at Langley, while keeping their own home fires burning as they help to write the history of the space race in America.
When NASA astronauts arrive at the research facility, the women are segregated from the rest of the scientists. It is only the biggest man of them all John Glenn (Glen Powell) who not only walks over to warmly to greet them all, but also stops to chat about their work before being hurried along.
Katherine Goble is a widow with three daughters to look after when we meet her first. A single mother with a lot on her plate, Katherine was a child genius; a mathematician who had been astounding her parents, other adults and her teachers since she was a primary school child when she entered university to study and hold her own with the professors and some of the greatest minds in the country.
Katherine known as a human computer, is the genius who invents the new style of mathematics that would change the game ensuring that NASA would successfully launch the first American astronaut into space.
Working the numbers at the coal-face as part of the Space Task Group, she is the only woman in a room full of men who offer her hostility and resentment. They are all eagerly waiting for the newly delivered first IBM computer to arrive and be installed.
And that’s where her friend schoolteacher Dorothy Vaughan comes in. Despite excelling at university, Dorothy had found her chances extremely limited on leaving, especially in the academic arena. Their loss would be NASA‘s gain, as Dorothy in 1949 becomes the unrecognised Supervisor of the West Area Computing Group, where the women all admire and respect her abilities. She knows they will be replaced by a machine and so seeks out a book from the ‘white section’ of her local library so she can learn the programming language Fortran.
Dorothy would be the one with the skills in place to tame the first IBM computer when it is finally delivered and installed at NASA. Confusing all the men, she trains her group to operate it under her supervision. Through patience, persistence and ability she earns the respect of her once prejudiced supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who tasks her and her team with ensuring the computer is working properly.
The third Mary Jackson gained her Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics and Physical Science and after two years of working with her colleagues, finds herself chosen in 1953 to work with Engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki (Olek Krupa) in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. He’s a refugee from Nazi Germany so understands all about prejudice and urges her to move outside the boundaries inflicted upon her.
After discovering her abilities he tasks her with entering a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Now this was not that easy, as the NASA manual demanded graduate level math and physics had to be taken in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia where classes at that time were held in the segregated Hampton High School.
Mary would need special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom but at first she has to approach the court and take on the judge.
The scene where she challenges his prejudice while sitting on at the bench in the movie, is a joy to behold. Through intelligent argument she gains his permission completes the courses, earns the promotion and in 1958, became NASA’s first female engineer.
Engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) from the Space Task Group halfway through the movie Hidden Figures denies the request of Katherine Johnson to attend an editorial meeting telling her “there’s no protocol for women attending.” She rebuffs him right back by saying “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir”, and puts in an official request to be present.
To be in that room for Katherine was vital. She was working under great stress with Stafford and the men in his division headed by NASA bigwig Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) poring over mathematical calculations. It was her job to check the men’s calculations were all correct, well at least as much as she could read because so much of it was redacted.
Katherine was in an hourly and daily battle, which meant that without being kept up to date with decisions made in that room, inevitably her work would be redundant the moment it was completed. The information delivered in that room was vital to her keeping them all ahead of the game.
Harrison would find that to succeed he would need Katherine’s help and would have to put his international goals ahead of his own thoughts and the huge national prejudice being enacted against South African Americans at the time.
Segregation and rabid racism was the focus for the men of her division, but for Harrison on a time frame to put a man into orbit, when he finally finds out why Katherine is missing for great lengths of time, it’s the last straw. Where is she going wasting great swathes of time?
Katherine has to daily go to war on a mental level but also on a practical level as well. The only segregated woman’s bathroom is a half a mile away from where she works, so it takes 40 minutes every time, running both backward and forwards on her high heels sometimes in the rain.
When he finds out where and why Harrison is enraged. He tears the words coloured off the segregated bathroom as well as off the coffee pot the men working under his leadership had put out for Katherine when she arrived. He informs everyone they will either all go together in bathrooms nearby and pour their drinks out of one pot of coffee, or not at all
For the women around at the time when this was all happening, as indeed I was with a baby on my knee listening in on the radio or watching TV in our living rooms on earth, as time after time the Americans chasing the tails of the Russians who had already put the first man into space, this story is an awesome revelation.
John F Kennedy reminded his fellow Americans at the time, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Little did he or we know that for Katherine, Dorothy and Mary it was more than just hard and my admiration for them all bubbles over.
At times their challenges must have seemed impossible and they would not have succeeded except for their bright minds and an educated sense of the ridiculous, understanding they had to just keep on keeping on doing their job to the best of their abilities.
Having a goal in mind is always the first and most powerful tool in inspiring and propelling humankind forward, because it is only through innovation, imagination, creativity and great achievements that we continue to progress.
For me one of the most defining moments in the film is when Al Harrison tells Katherine she is to be returned to the West Area Computing section as the IBM computer is now to take over. As she walks from the room where she has worked with so many men for a time, not one of them offers her his hand or wishes her good luck.
Her absence is short lived, for as astronaut John Glenn is about to launch into space when in the control room they find the IBM calculations are problematic and realize it’s the computer that’s acting up. John Glenn bless him, insists they send the numbers to Katherine to check them all or he won’t blast off.
She makes all the necessary corrections and in taking them to the control room for the launch, finds herself locked out, the door slammed in her face by the man who had brought them to her. Al Harrison opens the door and takes her in so she can be there to give Glenn her calculations first hand.
Because of her abilities when the mission gets into further trouble after only three of the planned seven circumnavigation’s of the earth, Glenn trusts her advice to leave the retro rocket attached to the heat shield in place for his safe re-entry. It meant they were able to bring him back to earth alive.
Throughout this awesome story we get to know the men in our women’s lives, all of who are not emasculated by their women’s minds, but are both encouraging and supportive. While they are all good, Mahershala Ali so excellent in the award winning movie Moonlight, becomes the widowed Katherine’s husband in a warm-hearted romance at the essence of the film.
This movie has an outstanding screenplay far more spectacular and inspiring than we could have possibly imagined when watching the trailer. The truth is relayed through superbly nuanced details and with fine performances from a stunning cast who take on the characters and own them completely.
In that respect I must mention Kevin Costner’s difficult and inspiring performance as Al Harrison, who while championing Katherine’s work is also serving his own self-interest and single-minded devotion to the space program. When she takes him on in front of all the men in the division exploding with rage, he offers her his respect.
At the end we discover many of the landmark events the women were involved in; Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 and Space Shuttle space missions.
In 2015, Katherine G. Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the all new 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was renamed the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honour in 2016.
Surely the feel good movie of the year, Hidden Figures is bound for the Oscars and what a turn up for the books if it snatches Best Picture away from all the other main contenders. Must be the best long shot in the race for many years and it could just surprise everyone.
4.5 out of 5.
Watch the Trailer – See the Movie