January 4, 2017

Hidden Figures: Movie Credits African-American Mathematicians’ Contributions to NASA

All of the astronauts who were chosen by NASA to participate in its first manned space programs — Mercury and Gemini — were white males. However, behind the scenes, there was a dedicated team of female African American mathematicians who played a pivotal role in ensuring that the missions launched and returned safely to Earth.

Equipped with pencils and slide-rules, these “human computers” were among the best and the brightest minds recruited by NASA and performed the critical calculations that were necessary to control the launches and returns of the missions. Author Margot Lee Shetterly describes the lives of these unsung heroines in Hidden Figures, a bestseller that credits their contributions to the space race.

In addition to chronicling their accomplishments, the book also recounts the indignities these brilliant black women suffered while living in Virginia during the days of Jim Crow. Back then, African American’s employed by NASA were automatically assigned to work in the segregated West Computing Group.

Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the story is an uplifting documentary drama. The movie recounts the trials and tribulations of three members of the unit: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).

The film shows how, without complaining, Katherine had to run to a distant “colored” ladies room despite the presence of one for whites that was nearby. On another occasion, we see Mary’s frustration in furthering her education because blacks weren’t allowed to enroll in the local college that was offering the courses she needed.

By the film’s end, both the bathroom and school were integrated after an emotional intervention by NASA administrator Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The movie is a dramatic documentary that corrects a shameful chapter in American history.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.