Katherine Johnson is a child prodigy whose maths skills leave her schoolteachers awestruck. Dorothy Vaughan is a scientist at the forefront of learning how to operate early computers. Mary Jackson is an engineer who is fascinated by the cutting-edge problems of her time.
All three are perfect material for NASA, but two things stand in their way: the institutionalised racism of the American South along with the casual sexism that permeates so much of life across the country at the dawn of the 1960s. As African-American women, huge obstacles lie in their way.
Fortunately, they get their chance to work on the space program, mainly because as the movie opens, it’s failing. The USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in 1957. Though little more than a box with some flashing lights, Sputnik terrified the Western world with the fear of the communists being able to launch nuclear attacks from space. It also looked like they would be sending a man into space any time soon.
NASA is being beaten all ends up by the Russians, and the organisation’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) knows it. He will do anything to catch up, sacking calculator after calculator in his drive to succeed (at this time, a calculator means a person working with mathematics, not a machine).
Few have the talent or inner steel to keep up the pace, but Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) is different. Widowed young and with three small children, she has to take the heat and do the maths whilst being an object of contempt and derision by her colleagues.
Alongside Harrison, the three friends also get major support from John Glenn, one of the USA’s first batch of astronauts, on what was called Project Mercury. Glenn will shake the women’s hands when others ignore them, and call for their help when everyone else is deleting their names from the historical record.
Glenn comes across as an all-round nice guy here, which makes a change from 1983’s The Right Stuff, the last major movie about Project Mercury. In that film, where you would struggle to find anyone who wasn’t white, Glenn was portrayed as a bit of dumb jock. Here he’s a thoughtful and brave explorer who wants to do his best for his country.
One thing that always causes problems for Americans when they want to celebrate their space program is the fact that it was run by the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun. Von Braun, who had knowingly used slave labour in the construction of missiles like the V2, was the genius behind their journey to the stars. In The Right Stuff, they just replaced von Braun with a fictional German scientist. In this movie, he isn’t mentioned at all.
Another hidden figure that is quietly ignored by the filmmakers is Valentina Terechkova. While the three women at NASA are experiencing such ingrained sexism that they aren’t even allowed into meetings, the USSR was busing preparing to send a woman into space. This was something unthinkable for the Americans, whose first chosen seven astronauts were all men.
The Soviets were way ahead of their capitalist rivals in civil rights as well as engineering at this time so that Terechkova became the first woman in space in 1963, just one year after Glenn’s orbit of the earth in Friendship 7. It would take twenty years for the USA to repeat the feat.
With cool special effects, a fun soundtrack and a feel-good story, Hidden Figures is a fine attempt to tell the stories of people that history has ignored. It also has a message for modern America, riven by division, of the amazing things that people can and did accomplish when they believed in a common future.
For more on the real people in Hidden Figures, see the NASA website here.