By Bradley Griffith
The 1960s were perhaps the most exciting time in the history of space exploration. The race to best the Soviet Union in every category, including the race to space, was paramount in the minds of nearly every American. “Hidden Figures” is about the unknown story of a few black women who were integral in helping the United States achieve space flight.
The year is 1961 and the movie begins with three friends and coworkers with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere on their way to work. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are on their way to Langley Research Center in Virginia where they work for NASA. A police officer approaches them with an attitude typical for the time until he discovers that they work for NASA. He’s so concerned about the Soviet threat to our country that he gives the ladies a police escort to work.
Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are part of a group of black women who work in a segregated area known as West Area Computers. They have separate bathrooms, water fountains, and a room where only black women work. Dorothy is the acting supervisor and hands out assignments to the women on a daily basis. Katherine is a mathematician. She’s not just an average, run-of-the-mill mathematician, but a genius in her field. Mary has the intellect and desire, but not the education, to be an engineer.
Things begin to change for Katherine when she is assigned to the Space Task Force on a permanent basis. Katherine is to work as a computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the Space Task Force. Katherine is hampered in her job because, among other things, the only bathroom in the entire research center that she can use is over two miles away at the West Computing Group.
Katherine is also prohibited from meetings and not privy to certain information that is necessary to her job. She’s kept out of these meetings because she is a black woman. In fact, all of the women from the West Computing Group are constantly discriminated against and underestimated because of the color of their skin and their gender. Fortunately, Al Harrison comes to realize that they will only be able to launch a man into space and bring him back with Katherine’s help.
The first thing that jumps out at you from “Hidden Figures” is that this was an embarrassing time in our history. These women were treated as second class citizens because they were women and because they were black. The best line in the movie belongs to Katherine when she is told there is no protocol for a woman attending a meeting with officials from the Department of Defense. She replies that there’s no protocol for sending a man into space, but they are doing it anyway.
The mathematical calculations that are necessary for space travel are amazingly complex. If you thought you just point a rocket at the sky and shoot, think again. Everything must be 100 percent perfect to effect space travel. Even more complex are the calculations necessary to return a capsule to Earth after orbit. The movie excels at illustrating the difficulties of space travel without bombarding you with numbers and formulas.
The movie takes place during the height of the Cold War. The American and Soviets were doing everything in their power to outdo the other. The race to space was one of many Cold War battlefronts. It’s interesting to see the competition with the Soviet Union and the paranoia that gripped many Americans during this period of history.
“Hidden Figures” is a movie about discrimination and segregation. It’s a shameful time in our history. But it’s also a movie whose true purpose is to bring everyone together, to unite the country. “Hidden Figures” is the ultimate example of getting the right person for the job regardless of race or gender, and it’s an important lesson needs to be learned even today.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.