Hidden Figures confronts those equality issues head on. Once Johnson moves away from the human computer pool and gets assigned to the Space Task Group, she's forced to deal with a room full of mostly white men who offer her little respect. There's a hush when she pours herself a cup of coffee for the first time, and eventually someone sets up a ratty secondary machine to serve as the "colored" coffee maker. When she needs to use the bathroom, she's forced to run all the way across the NASA campus to use the colored facilities by the West Area group. And she works with a colleague, played by Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, who pays her little respect. Naturally, Johnson's boss, a fictional NASA manager portrayed by Kevin Costner, is clueless about all of the issues she's facing.
Things aren't much better for the other women, either. Dorothy Vaughan gets rebuked from her white supervisor (played by Kirsten Dunst) when she asks for official manager status, even though she's doing the work of a manager. When Mary Jackson wants to be promoted to an engineer, she's forced to petition the city to let her take night classes at a segregated high school.
These are all issues we've seen before, but as we move further away from the indignities of Jim Crow laws and the struggle for civil rights, its easy to underestimate their impact. It also isn't difficult to trace a line between the problems presented in Hidden Figures and diversity issues we're still dealing with today. For example, Dunst's character seems to mean well as a supervisor. And yet, she still blocks any attempt at advancement. (I also found it interesting that she addresses Vaughan as "Dorothy," while subordinate calls her much younger supervisor "Ms. Mitchell.") It's the sort of casual discrimination that people of color still have to deal with today.
At the Space Task Group, Katherine Johnson argued to attend high-level meetings about the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission -- something no woman attended before -- so that she could have the most current data for her orbital calculations. She plotted the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, in 1959, though we don't see that in the film. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on her calculations for John Glenn's mission aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962, which made him the first American to orbit the Earth. While NASA was moving away from human computers and towards IBM machines by then, Glenn famously asked for Johnson to double-check the machine's figures before he took off.
Speaking of IBM, we also see how Dorothy Vaughan was wise enough to start learning FORTRAN as soon as NASA received the machines. She encouraged her group at the West Computing Area to learn programming skills as well, which made them invaluable as NASA started relying more on IBM's equipment. Vaughan would eventually go on to become NASA's first African-American manager, all the while helping other black women at the space agency.
Hidden Figures has some issues you'd find in many biopics. At times it's a bit too sentimental, and it glosses over historical moments quickly. But it's ultimately an important film, one that brings to light just how much NASA -- and really, America as a whole -- owes this group of black women. It's a reminder that, even during a more tumultuous racial climate, we were able to overcome our differences to work towards a common (and seemingly) impossible goal. And as the world is getting increasingly more divisive, that's worth remembering.