Those who author history tend to add an asterisk to preserve an unspoken status quo. One such example is made evident in Theodore Melfi’s 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.”
An intriguing and inspiring story to begin with, “Hidden Figures” boasts a cast that was more than capable of conveying the untold efforts of NASA’s brilliant female African-American staff.
Taraji P. Henson, known for her role as Cookie Lyon in FOX’s “Empire,” was Katherine Johnson (née Goble), an incredible mathematician; singer/songwriter and model Janelle Monáe portrayed Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer; while Oscar winner Octavia Spencer played the acting supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan. Set in 1960s Virginia, in the midst of the segregation era, the film documents the three women’s respective journeys in working for NASA.
From shooting down sexist-rooted doubts in their capabilities to facing racism head on, Goble, Jackson and Vaughan were faced with adversity from fellow coworkers and, sometimes, even friends. But as time progresses and their determination showed no signs of waning, the trio proved to be more than capable of achieving what many assumed to be the impossible.
Delving into the more technical aspects of the film, it is fair to say that Melfi struck a balance between drama and light-hearted comedy to make for an enchanting film. While “Hidden Figures” surely had heavy themes, namely racism and sexism, the film made sure to highlight Goble, Jackson and Vaughan’s efforts and successes as human beings rather than portraying them as solely victims of scrutiny.
That is not to say that Melfi only focused on their achievements – rather, he made it evident that these women were able to push against adversity to get the job done.
Each woman fulfilled a monumental goal that not only benefited their fellow female African-Americans working at NASA, but also propelled NASA’s position in the Space Race to new heights. Goble spent the bulk of the film calculating safe re-entry and landing coordinates and speeds; Jackson made history as NASA’s first female African American aerospace engineer; Vaughan trained herself and her coworkers in the programming language FORTRAN to get a jumpstart on properly working the new IBM 7090.
With each contribution came a subtle, but important, break in NASA’s racially charged environment. And while the women should not have needed to prove themselves to be competent allies and coworkers, they nonetheless stepped up and exceeded their employers’ expectations. In fact, the bulk of character development in supporting characters was based on the leading women’s achievements in the field.
However, the film’s relatively uplifting aura should not fool any viewer. Recall that the purpose of this film was to give Goble, Jackson and Vaughan the credit and recognition they have deserved for decades, so the film’s triumphant ending and epilogue serve as an homage to the service these women paid to the country despite discrimination.
While “Hidden Figures” has a long run time, Melfi made sure to supply as much historical context and scientific detail into the film.STEM enthusiasts are sure to enjoy the rapid math, physics, coding and engineering woven throughout the plot, and history buffs will find the splices of historical film in tasteful use. The story of Goble, Jackson and Vaughan is as intriguing as it is important; the enthusiasm found in STEM and historical topics is an added bonus.