The year is 1961 and a bright turquoise Chevrolet sits on the side of the road with the hood open and a woman’s legs sticking out from beneath as she tries to figure out what is wrong with the picturesque automobile. Another woman sits in the car, staring off into space, while a third does her makeup, sitting on the trunk. They see a police car coming toward them and swiftly ready themselves by the side of their vehicle. This early moment, and what follows, sets the tone of the film, Hidden Figures. The three women, played by Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, in the bright turquoise Chevrolet become noticeably tense when the white police officer steps out of his car. The three of them are black and live in Hampton, Virginia, during a time when, despite the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, there is severe segregation and racial discrimination. They tell the officer they work for NASA, to which he responds, “I had no idea they hired...” looking over Monae.
Hidden Figures is about women who are doubted from the start, well aware of the many barriers that society has placed in front of them. Henson, Monae and Spencer play Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, respectively. These three women surpassed racial barriers at NASA, and the film follows their involvement in the launching of U.S. astronaut John Glenn into space. The film opens with the claim, “based on true events.” The caveat of Hidden Figures, however, is to be conscious of how much the film was dramatized. Upon leaving the theater, viewers should be aware that they do not know the whole story.
The main story of the film centers around Johnson, a widow at the start of the movie known as Katherine Goble, who progressed from a child prodigy to a math genius at NASA, working as a computer who, at the time, was a person who did calculations. Computers were later replaced by machines capable of doing 24,000 calculations per second. In the film, Johnson works in a department called “Colored Computers,” right next to the “Colored Ladies Room.” The film emphasizes the segregation of the time. White people unabashedly tell the main characters of the movie their limitations and where they are not allowed to go simply because of the color of their skin.
From the computers department, Johnson is taken out to join the Space Task Force. There, she walks into a room full of white men in white shirts and thin black ties. As the film repeatedly shows, she is made to feel out of place, which can even be seen through the contrast of wardrobes. Meanwhile, Vaughan is a supervisor, except without the title or salary to reflect it because, in the words of Vivian Mitchell, a supervisor above her department, things move slowly at NASA. Jackson, who works in the department as well, is encouraged to entertain her dreams of becoming an engineer. When she brings it up to Mitchell and is told that she is unqualified because of new requirements for the position, she remarks “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.”
In the Space Task Force, Johnson bumps heads with Paul Stafford, the engineer she reports to, who is at the forefront of the discrimination directed toward her. In reality, both Mitchell and Stafford are fictionalized characters, as is Johnson’s boss, Al Harrison. According to an interview with television station WHRO-TV, Johnson said that she did not in fact feel any segregation “because everybody there was doing research.” One extended scene involving Johnson having to run across the NASA campus to find a colored bathroom, provides a poignant scene later in the film, but never actually happened.
The movie has a powerful pathos, giving form and recognition to the suffering experienced by African Americans during the time period. Because of its dramatized and fictionalized construction, the movie needs to be consumed through a compartmentalized understanding. To know the true story, viewers must consult the documented history and recorded testimonies. Setting aside the actual story, Hidden Figures is a good place to go to understand the flagrant denigration and hateful segregation of an entire group of people due to the color of their skin.
With the bright turquoise Chevrolet in one of the film’s opening scenes, the math done by hand on giant chalkboards and the old TV broadcasts of speeches in support of U.S. space efforts, the film has an environment rife with opportunities for nostalgia. The distressing reality of the barriers and hatred that existed at that time instead show a United States that was far from great. Yet, even among the darkness, there are still beacons of hope. Johnson was heavily involved in calculations, and was even directly singled out by Glenn to double-check the math before he would be launched into orbit. Vaughan became the first African-American supervisor at NASA and a leading figure in computer programming, while Jackson became NASA’s first African-American engineer.
The movie portrays the struggles, heartbreaks and successes of strong women in a grim reality. Despite its deviation from history, the past it shows was far from fiction.