Just imagine three African-American women on the side of the road, their car broken down. It’s Hampton, Virgina in 1961 and a white police officer pulls over, suspicious. Once he hears they work for NASA, he changes his tune and offers them an escort so they won’t be late for work. As she’s driving, one of the women exclaims, “Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle.”
And so the fun begins in the crowd-pleasing, inspirational “Hidden Figures.” The showing I went to had people exclaiming “Amen!” at some points, clapping at others. In one scene Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) gets a door slammed in her face. One woman in the audience yelled out, “That’s America, folks.” When the credits rolled, applause broke out.
The audience at the theater was right to applaud this film. It’s a story for the ages, one every school child should learn, inspiring and challenging at the same time.
The race to beat the Russians into space in the 1960’s provides the backdrop for a civil rights story that changed history. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth in 1961, put a fire under everyone at NASA, among them Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
Mary’s an engineer who goes to court for the right to take classes at an all-white school so she can finish her degree. Dorothy supervises the pool of “computers,” (women who check the math of the men) but she has neither the title nor the accompanying pay. Katherine is the star of the show, a mathematician of supreme talent. She joins the elite Space Task Group, the ones who calculate the all-important trajectories for the manned missions. When she walks into the room the first time, all heads turn, all white male heads, lead by Kevin Costner as Al Harrison.
Harrison has a problem, though. Whenever he needs Katherine, it seems like she’s away from her desk. When he finally confronts her, she complains that she has to walk a half mile (in heels no less), all the way across the Langley Research Center’s campus, to use the facilities because there is no ‘colored’ ladies room in their building. In frustration, he demolishes the restroom’s sign declaring, “At NASA, we all pee the same color!”
All these women had to work extra hard to earn the respect of their colleagues. They had two glass ceilings to break and break them they did. “Hidden Figures” focuses on Katherine. She was the one John Glenn (the first American to orbit the earth, played by Glen Powell) trusted to make the calculations for his takeoff and landing. Dorothy Vaughan’s story doesn’t get as much time as Katherine’s in the film, but Dorothy was the one who became a programming expert for NASA’s first room-sized IBM machines. She read up on the FORTRAN language from a book she sneaked out of the ‘whites only’ section of the local library.
I found the film to be just as inspiring as everyone else did and I joined my applause to that of the other theater-goers when the film ended. To me, the film speaks of simple respect, due to every person because he or she is human. These ladies had to work too hard to gain the respect that should have been theirs by virtue of their intellectual accomplishments, regardless of their gender or race. We have come a long way as a society in terms of civil rights, but we still have a long way to go. “Hidden Figures” celebrates the steps we have made and challenges us to continue the journey.