‘Hidden’ No More
An extraordinary cast puts a new spotlight on three heroines of modern American history.
“Hidden Figures” is a lot of things. The story of a trio of black female mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s who were instrumental in America’s initial forays into space, it is history unlocked, box office smash, crowd-pleasing awards season bait.
But at heart, the film is a tour de force for three actresses whose incredible performances anchor the Academy Award-nominated drama: Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”), Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), and singer Janelle Monae (“Moonlight”).
“Now, we know there were amazing women behind how astronaut John Glenn came to orbit the earth,” said Henson. “We finally get to hear their story.”
Remarkably, the real-life Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are household names — even though their daring, smarts, and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to the advances that allowed for space flight.
For all its joys and triumphs, “Hidden Figures” also takes place at the crossroads of some of the most defining struggles in American history: the fight for civil rights; the high-stakes battle to win the Cold War without risking nuclear conflict; and the race to be the first superpower to establish a human presence beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Katherine G. Johnson, now in her 90s, is surprised by the growing fascination with her life’s work and that of her compatriots. She says she was always just doing the best for her job, her family, and her community — as she believes anybody would. “I was just solving problems that needed to be solved,” she says with characteristic modesty.
According to Henson, “When I met Katherine she told me that one of her professors once said, ‘I am sick and tired of you asking questions when I know you know the answers.’ Katherine’s response was, ‘Well, I know these six students around me don’t know the answer, and I want them to understand it the way that I do.’ That is an incredible person who thinks that way. When you talk to Katherine about the bias of the times, she takes the tone of, ‘That’s just how it was.’ For her, you got on with it. You did your job, and you did what would hopefully bring change. And that was the huge opportunity she got to the Space Task Group. They didn’t care who she was if she could get them the number they needed. She was part of a larger human goal, and that meant a lot.”
Even before NASA saw their untapped genius, these were astonishingly special women:
• Johnson (portrayed by Henson) was a West Virginia phenomenon who began high school at the age of 10, and had graduated with degrees in mathematics and French at 18 before becoming one of the first to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University. While working for NASA, she was also a single mother raising three children.
• Vaughan (portrayed by Spencer) was equally accomplished — a Missourian who graduated from college at 19 and worked as a math teacher before joining Langley in 1943. She quickly became the head of the West Computing group.
• Jackson (portrayed by Monae) was a local from Hampton, Virginia with degrees in Physical Science and Mathematics. She rose to Aerospace Engineer after joining Langley in 1951 — specializing in wind tunnel experiments and aircraft data, always using her position to help others.
Despite the Jim Crow laws still undermining equality and human rights in Virginia in the 1950s and ‘60s, Langley hired an entirely female team of these “human computers,” a number of whom were African-American math teachers. They remained segregated, with black women eating in separate quarters and working apart in a remote division know as West Computing. They were paid less than their white counterparts. Yet, extraordinary work rose above — and ultimately so won over the men in their midst that they became utterly indispensable to the boldest mission yet: putting John Glenn into full orbit around the earth.
Like Henson, Octavia Spencer felt a magnetic attraction to her character. “I was drawn to the fact that we haven’t known about the contributions these brilliant NASA women made to our advancement and to the space race. Whenever I choose a role, it has to be something that I’m intrigued by or enlightens me in some way. ‘Hidden Figures’ had both of those combined,” she said. “This movie is set in such an interesting time for our country, when it was redefining itself into what we are now. And the beautiful thing about looking back at history, as the film does, is contemplating how we can influence the future. I’m really hopeful that after seeing this story, there will be girls in the world who will realize just how much value they have.”
One of Spencer’s favorite lines that she delivers as Dorothy Vaughan is, “No one can tell you that you’re better than anyone else, and nobody can tell you that you’re less than anyone else.”
Vaughan, who died in 2008, continued to work with NASA for most of her life. As soon as IBM computers arrived on the scene, it was Vaughan who sensed a brave new era in the making and quickly changed gears specializing in electronic computing for FORTRAN programming, making herself and her co-workers indispensable. Among the women of West Computing, she was seen as a leader and Katherine G. Johnson called her the smartest woman she ever met.
Best known for her futuristic pop star persona, Janelle Monae was an out-of-the-box choice to play Mary Jackson, but the filmmakers thought it was a chance worth taking.
According to Monae, “To be part of telling this history was so motivating to me. These women literally changed the world by allowing the first astronaut to orbit earth. From the time I received the script and was asked to audition, there was nothing more important to me than taking on the role of Mary Jackson. I did a lot of research on Mary. She’s passed on, but her spirit still lives. Even though I never had the chance to speak to her, she has definitely spoken to my heart. I saw her as someone who wanted fairness. She knew she was smart, and she did not belittle herself or dim her light to make anybody feel comfortable.”