Tales of the space race between the US and Russia inevitably focus on the white male scientists and astronauts who seemingly did the impossible. But it's important to remember that those folks had plenty of support from people of all backgrounds. Hidden Figures, which hits theaters in a limited release on Christmas, is the rare opportunity to tell one such story: how three black women helped NASA launch the first American into orbit.
Based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is particularly timely as NASA is coming off of successful missions like the New Horizons Pluto excursion. The agency has finally found a groove on social media and it's also beginning to talk about exciting missions ahead, like bringing humans to Mars. And of course, Hidden Figures is also incredibly relevant as we approach the presidency of Donald Trump, a man who's proven to be resolutely anti-science when it comes to things like climate change.
Set in the lead-up to the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission in 1962, the film focuses on Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a math genius who played a crucial role in calculating flight trajectories for NASA; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who led black women at the West Area Computers division; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), NASA's first African-American female engineer. They're also supported by a coterie of other black women who served as "human computers" -- people making complex mathematical calculations before the advent of traditional computers. (Annie Easley, another human computer at NASA, also had a lasting impact on modern spaceflight.)
From the start, Hidden Figures doesn't waste any time proving why we should care about these women. Katherine Johnson is portrayed as a child prodigy who makes her way through college by the age of 18 with degrees in Mathematics and French. In an early scene, as the three women are dealing with a broken down car by the side of the road, they catch the attention of a white male police officer who has no problem wielding his authority over them with disrespect. But after learning they work at NASA, he offers them an escort to their offices, which leads to a striking image of the women speeding after his police car to keep up. That's not something you usually expect to see in a film set in the early 1960s.
NASA (and its previous incarnation, NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) counts itself as one of the pioneers for diverse employment during the civil rights era in the US, but that doesn't mean there weren't any hurdles for black employees. The West Area Computers Division in Langley, Virginia, where the three subjects of Hidden Figures initially worked, was completely segregated by race. And, as you'd expect during that time, they also had to live with things like segregated bathrooms and dining areas.