What Sets the Smart Heroines of Hidden Figures Apart

Movies about brilliant scientific or mathematical minds often focus on their subject’s ego—not so with a new film about three African American women who worked at NASA in the ’60s.

20th Century Fox

When it comes to historical movies about brilliant minds, especially in the realms of math or the sciences, audiences can all but expect a tale of ego. Films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game all lean in some way on the idea of the inaccessible genius—a mathematician, computer scientist, and theoretical physicist all somehow removed from the world.

Hidden Figures is not that kind of film: It’s a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It’s a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory. Set in 1960s Virginia, the film centers on three pioneering African American women whose calculations for NASA were integral to several historic space missions, including John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. These women—Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—were superlative mathematicians and engineers despite starting their careers in segregation-era America and facing discrimination at home, at school, and at work.

And yet Hidden Figures pays tribute to its subjects by doing the opposite of what many biopics have done in the past—it looks closely at the remarkable person in the context of a community. Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film celebrates individual mettle, but also the way its characters consistently try to lift others up.  They’re phenomenal at what they do, but they’re also generous with their time, their energy, and their patience in a way that feels humane, not saintly. By refracting the overlooked lives and accomplishments of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson through this lens, Hidden Figures manages to be more than an inspiring history lesson with wonderful performances.

From the start, Hidden Figures makes clear that it is about a trio, not a lone heroine. Katherine (played by a radiant Taraji P. Henson) is the film’s ostensible protagonist and gets the most screen time. But her story is woven tightly with those of Mary (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer); the former became NASA’s first black female engineer, the latter was a mathematician who became NASA’s first African American manager. (It’s worth noting that, as a dramatization, the film makes tweaks to the timeline, characters, and events of the books.)

Hidden Figures begins in earnest in 1961. Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy are part of NASA’s pool of human “computers”—employees, usually women, charged with doing calculations before the use of digital computers. Due to Virginia’s segregation laws, African American female computers have to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. But the U.S. is so desperate to beat the Soviet Union into space that NASA becomes a reluctant meritocracy: Because of her expertise in analytic geometry, Katherine is assigned to a special task group trying to get Glenn into orbit. She arrives at her new job to find she’s the sole brown face in the room.

Katherine is closest to the excitement, but Hidden Figures widens its scope beyond her. Mary must navigate layers of racist bureaucratic hurdles in her quest to become an engineer. Dorothy is fighting for a long overdue promotion, while the arrival of an IBM machine threatens to put her team of computers out of work. The women consistently out-think their higher-ranked (usually white, male) colleagues, whether by learning a new programming language, solving problems in wind-tunnel experiments, or calculating narrow launch windows for space missions. Each is uniquely aware of the broader stakes of her success—for other women, for black people, for black women, and for America at large—and this knowledge is as much an inspiration as it is a heavy weight.

Early on, Dorothy shares her ambivalence about Katherine’s prestigious new assignment. “Any upward movement is movement for us all. It’s just not movement for me,” she says, disappointed after a setback at work. It’s a subtle, but loaded point, and one of the most thought-provoking lines in the film. Of course she’s proud of Katherine, and of course Katherine is paving the way for others. But individual victories are often simply that—Katherine knocking down one pillar of discrimination doesn’t mean countless more don’t remain. Still, Dorothy’s frustration with her stagnation at work doesn’t translate to defeatism or selfishness. She spends much of the film maneuvering to protect her team’s jobs, even if it means risking her own status and security.

Their intellect may not be broadly relatable (again, they’re exceptional for a reason), but their sense of rootedness is. Though most of their time and energy go to their careers, the women of Hidden Figures don’t take their relationships with each other and with their friends and families for granted. If one gets held up at work for hours, the other two wait in the parking lot until they can all drive home. On the weekends, they go to church and neighborhood barbecues and spend time with their children. They don’t “have it all,” but they do strive for balance and connection. (Another “feel-good film” from 2016, Queen of Katwe, also used the concept of community and interdependence to undermine the built-up notion of isolated talent.)

Despite the racism and sexism Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary face, Hidden Figures is a decidedly un-somber affair. The breezy script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder opts not to dwell much on the particulars of aeronautical science; instead, it revels in the intelligence and warmth of its subjects, in their successes both in and out of the office, and it wants viewers to do so too. Hidden Figures doesn’t hide its efforts to be a crowdpleaser—depending on audience size, you can expect clapping and cheering after moments of victory, and loud groans whenever egregious acts of racism take place (there are many). A buoyant soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch and regular doses of comic relief help keep the tone light and optimistic despite the serious issues at hand.

Rounding out Hidden Figures’ all-star cast are Kevin Costner, as Katherine’s boss and eventual ally; an appropriately un-funny Jim Parsons as a new colleague of Katherine’s who can barely tolerate her presence; Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s manager and the epitome of the racist-who-thinks-she’s-not type; Glen Powell as an affable John Glenn; and Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s kindly love interest, Jim Johnson. Because of the engaging performances that Henson, Monáe, and Spencer give, each main character is fascinating to watch in her own right. But it’s their dynamic that makes it a joy to see them onscreen together.

Hidden Figures doesn’t try to push many artistic boundaries, but it tells its story so well that it doesn’t really have to. The film also avoids the most glaring missteps of historical movies that deal with race: At no point does it try to give viewers the impression that racism has been “solved,” and its white characters exist on a constantly shifting spectrum of racial enlightenment. What’s more, the film’s straightforward presentation belies its fairly radical subject matter. As K. Austin Collins notes at The Ringer, Hidden Figures “might be one of the few Hollywood movies about the civil rights era to imagine that black lives in the ’60s, particularly black women’s lives, were affected not only by racism but also by the space race and the Cold War.”

The Hidden Figures author, Shetterly, has discussed how the film only portrays a fraction of the individuals who worked on the space program—and how the movie was meant to speak to the experiences of the many African American women working at NASA at the time.  Watching this particular story unfurl on the big screen, it’s hard not to think of how many more movies and books could be made about women like Katherine Johnson—talented women shut out of promotions and meetings and elite programs and institutions and, thus history, because they weren’t white. Even today, barriers remain. A 2015 study found 100 percent of women of color in STEM fields report experiencing gender bias at work, an effect often influenced by their race. Black and Latina women, for example, reported being mistaken for janitors (a scene that, fittingly, takes place in Hidden Figures).

With the complex social forces that shaped its characters’ lives still so relevant today, Hidden Figures is powerful precisely because it’s not a solo portrait or a close character study. Certainly, Hollywood will be a better industry when there are more films about the egos and personal demons and grand triumphs of black women who helped to change the world. But Hidden Figures shines with respect for sisterhood and the communistic spirit, and in casting its spotlight wide, the film imparts a profound appreciation for what was achieved in history’s shadows.