The Women of ‘Hidden Figures’ Stand Together as One

Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan
Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan

The three talented mathematicians at the heart of the historical drama Hidden Figures helped take America into space. Their carpool cruise home in a 1957 Chevrolet after work, however, was their time to vent about not going anywhere in their jobs.

Filming a scene for the movie (in theaters Christmas Day in 14 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington; expands nationwide Jan. 6) in an old ice cream warehouse on a warm April day, Taraji P. Henson is seated in the back as Katherine G. Johnson, the woman whose calculations would ultimately help John Glenn orbit Earth. Yet Katherine’s first day working with NASA scientists in 1961 hasn’t gone so well.

Her colleagues are similarly irked: Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan is angry that she leads the “colored computers” — a group of black women crunching numbers every day — but doesn’t get a supervisor’s pay, and Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson isn’t having any luck in her dream of becoming an engineer.

“Truth be told, Dorothy, I don’t even know if I can keep up in that room,” Henson says, giving Katherine’s tone a worrisome edge. “I’ll be back with the computers within the week or out of a job entirely.”

“Oh, please,” Spencer responds. “You’re better with the numbers than anyone in that room, Katherine, and you know it. Just make that pencil move as fast as your mind does, you’ll be fine.”


That mind would be key to America staying competitive with the Russians in the 1960s space race, though Hidden Figures (based on the Margot Lee Shetterly book) explores the obstacles facing the country as well as the three main characters — not only racial but also gender inequality, involving white men in a workplace who didn’t know what to make of a black woman being the smartest person in the room. The movie pairs a strong female-empowerment message with heady themes and feel-good vibes.

“It just says that when we stick together, we can change the world,” says Monáe, a Grammy-winning musician whose first Hollywood audition was for Hidden Figures. “It wasn’t just because of Katherine or Mary or Dorothy, it was because they all stuck together. They leaned on each other’s shoulders, they cried, they laughed, they loved, they encouraged each other. It’s because (Katherine) had her sisters there to encourage her that history was made.”

The work has proven fruitful. Hidden Figures was nominated for three Critics’ Choice Awards — including best picture and best supporting actress for Monáe — and Spencer is up for supporting actress at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild ceremonies. The movie also snagged a SAG best cast nomination.

With its roots in the civil rights movement, Hidden Figures “reminds us how far we’ve come and respecting each other no matter what we look like, the color of our skin or where we come from,” says Erik Davis, managing editor for and He adds that the film could be a strong Oscar contender in February: “It’s one of the year’s best crowd-pleasers, and it’s the crowd-pleasers that typically win best picture.”

As the movie starts out, things aren’t peachy keen for the core trio. A West Virginia native who graduated high school at 14 and college by 18, Katherine is assigned to a group at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The outfit is led by NASA head honcho Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who wants Katherine to look “beyond the math” to help figure out how to get Glenn (Glen Powell) to space and back safely. But she’s looked down upon by other men and has to run to the other side of the campus just to use the colored restrooms.

“They’re engineers and they’re scientists, but they allowed some of that (prejudice) to creep over, and the net effect was the cream wasn’t necessarily rising to the top,” Costner says. “Human nature has pettiness and insecurity in it, and that crosses all racial boundaries.”

Meanwhile, Mary is a bright young woman who specializes in aircraft data and wind-tunnel experiments and wants to become the first female engineer at NASA of any race, though she has to petition the court system to win the right to take classes at an all-white school. And Dorothy, a former math teacher, is stonewalled by her boss (Kirsten Dunst) when it comes to getting properly paid for the work she does, all while NASA is installing a huge IBM computer that threatens to make Dorothy and her charges obsolete.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Brian Truitt