In 1961, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as mathematicians, or human calculators.  All three women are black women and work in the West Computer area of Langley Research Center.  At the time, the West Area was segregated by race and sex.   The supervisor of that section is a white woman, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). 

Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) runs the Space Task Group.  His job is to find a way to get astronauts into space and return them to Earth alive.  In order to do that he needs someone who understands analytic geometry.  Vivian assigns Katherine to Harrison’s team.  In her quiet way, Katherine out computes everyone else on the team and becomes essential to ensuring that NASA’s goal of space flight is accomplished.

Mary is assigned to work for Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa).  Karl is in charge of testing the prototype Mercury capsule.  Karl is aware of Mary’s abilities and wants her to become an engineer.  In order to do that she needs to take some additional courses to supplement her degrees.  The problem with taking the courses is that they are being given at a whites only school.  Even though schools aren’t supposed to be segregated, Virginia does it anyway.  Mary has to petition the court to be allowed to take the night courses she needs to become a full-fledged engineer for NASA.   

NASA begins the installation of a massive computer system that is to be used to perform the calculations that humans did but at a much faster pace.  Dorothy understands that the new IBM computer will mean that NASA will no longer need humans as computers.  To maintain relevance, she begins teaching herself and the other women in her department FORTRAN computer language.

These three women were pioneers in their fields and were responsible for ensuring that the Mercury 7 astronauts were sent into space and safely returned to Earth. 

“Hidden Figures” was released in 2016 and was directed by Theodore Melfi.  It is an American science historical drama and was based on real life characters that worked for NASA.  The film was based on the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

I was in the mood to watch something really good.  This movie did not disappoint.  I found it uplifting and engrossing.  Of course, as with any stylized historical film, some artistic touches were added or altered.  Dramatic effect always wins out to reality.  The focus of the film is the struggle these women went through to overcome not only racism but sexism as well.  In a world dominated by white men, they found the fortitude to not only survive but shine. 

In reality Mary Jackson got her engineering degree and became NASA's first female Black engineer.  Dorothy Vaughan became NASA's first Black supervisor.  Katherine Goble Johnson went on to work on the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions.  In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2016 NASA dedicated, in her honor, the Langley Research Center's “Katherine Johnson Computational Building”.  Katherine Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 101.

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