It begins with a young African-American girl counting her steps.
She counts differently than most children – “1, 2, prime number, 4, prime number…”
That child is Katherine Coleman, who becomes Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson).
Katherine is part of a group called “colored computers” who work for NASA at the dawn of the space program. She is friends with Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).
These three are the focal point of the story told in “Hidden Figures.”
The second scene in the movie is the three broken down on a road in Hampton, Virginia.
Good with her hands, Dorothy is under the car trying to fix it. Katherine sits in the passenger seat up front, her head in the clouds. Mary stands at the back complaining.
A state trooper pulls up. He asks for ID from the trio. When he learns that these women work for NASA, he begins to say, “I didn’t know that NASA hired …”
Dorothy quickly responds, “Yes, there are quite a few women in the space program.”
This scene becomes a defining moment in the story. Because of their skin color and gender, the three women face obstacles in using their gifts and talents.
An example is how Mary is treated when she wants to become an engineer.
When she is moved to the engineering division of NASA to help with the creation of the capsule, her supervisor asks her if she were a male, would she want to be an engineer.
Her reply is if she were a male, she would not have to want to be one. She would be one already.
Mary applies for the engineering job but is told she cannot be a part of the program because she lacks some college classes. To take the classes, she must go to a segregated school.
Mary declares, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.”
These scenes show how “Hidden Figures” tells its story. It is not over the top but in a subtle manner. Racism is shown to be what it was. It was not as much in your face as it was the way the system worked.
Katherine’s story speaks to this. She gets sent to work in the area where the computations are made about launch and landing of the astronauts. Her job is to check the math of those who are working in that area. But there is a huge problem.
Katherine is African-American, or colored, in the movie. When she needs to use the restroom, she has to walk out of the building she works in and into the building she used to work in.
The reason: There is no colored female bathroom in the current building. The roundtrip places her out of the office for close to an hour each time.
Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the boss of this aspect of the program. He learns of the problem and goes and physically removes the sign for the colored bathroom. When he is done, he says, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
An interesting sidebar to this movie is the fact that before the filming, Henson went to visit the real Katherine Goble Johnson.
Johnson makes a statement wondering why anyone would want to make a film about her life. The reason is simple: The story needed to be told.
I have never had any illusions about movies being truly factual. I do not believe they give a clear window into history. All of them, if based on actual events, take dramatic license to make them better for the screen.
But this story is one that I am glad is here. I do not remember exactly where I read this, but it was stated that it is sad that we have to learn African-American history from the movies.
This wonderful story is an example of a movie that children can watch that teaches the lessons of the past and the heroines who were important to the space program.
It is a fine film that does something more than entertain. It gives us a window into the larger history of our nation and the roles that three extraordinary African-American women played in it.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughn), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford).
The film’s website is here.