Hidden Figures: What You Need To Know
During the 1950s and 60s, with the Cold War at its most bitterly glacial, the race for nuclear supremacy between East and West was equalled only by the competitive struggle between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union to conquer the final frontier: space. The race to put men into orbit, then on the surface of the moon, was a regular fixture in the news bulletins of the era and made household names of astronauts and cosmonauts such as Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
But behind these famous names lay the efforts of some of the world's most brilliant scientists, engineers and mathematicians, whose pioneering work made space travel possible – and whose names most people probably wouldn't recognise. The role of the women in this team has been particularly overlooked in the annals of history, usually employed in a data-crunching capacity and often regarded by many of their male counterparts as little more than 'computers in skirts'.
That's especially true in the case of a group of African-American women whose brilliant work helped to ensure the success of NASA's space programme and the safety of its astronauts, an achievement that is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that they were working in a climate that was not only very male-dominated, but also still largely segregated by race.
In 2016, author Margot Lee Shetterly sought to rectify this historical omission with her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win The Space Race, which outlines the importance of the work carried out by a group of black women led by the gifted mathematician Katherine Johnson, and their role in changing the working culture at America's space agency.
The book shot to the top of the non-fiction best-sellers list and was quickly picked up and adapted for the big screen. The resulting film, released under the abbreviated title Hidden Figures, arrived in cinemas in December of last year and is set to land in stores on Monday (July 3rd). Here's everything you need to know about it...
Who's in it?
Empire's Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Johnson, alongside a superb cast that includes Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, Janelle Monae, Aldis Hodge and Jim Parsons.
And who's directing?
St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi is the man behind the lens here, working from a script co-written by himself and Side Effects writer Allison Schroder.
What's the plot?
The film is part historical account of the space race from NASA's point of view, and part biopic of Katherine Johnson, whom we meet as a young girl with an obvious talent for advanced mathematics. Johnson was a child prodigy who amazed her teachers with her instinctive grasp of complex mathematical concepts and equations. However, Johnson grew up in a racially segregated society and lived in the West Virginia county of White Sulphur Springs, in which state eduction beyond the eighth grade was only offered to white students, so Johnson's parents send her to high school in another West Virginia county in order to further her education.
Graduating at 14, Johnson is employed at West Area Computers, part of NASA's Langley Research Centre, where she meets her colleagues Mary Jackson (Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer).
Following the successful launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, NASA is put under increased pressure to speed up their work in order to match the efforts of the Russians, leading to a recruitment drive that sees Johnson recruited to the Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Costner). Johnson's new colleagues are initially dismissive of her abilities, particularly the team's head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), who refuses to allow her to attend meetings discussing scientific matters.
However, Stafford eventually relents under pressure from colleagues who are beginning to recognise Johnson's talents and, when given the opportunity, Johnson presents an equation that solves a major development problem by creating a safe re-entry path through the Earth's atmosphere. Despite this, Johnson is asked to remove her name from all the reports, but gradually the talents of Johnson and her colleagues become so invaluable that the agency begins to relent, allowing her to take the credit for her own work, de-segregating the working environment and using Johnson's expertise to create flight paths for the Apollo 11 mission.
Does it deliver?
Hidden Figures is not only a fascinating and important historical account of Johnson's vital contribution to the space programme, it's also a really entertaining and often amusing watch. Henson is excellent in the leading role, while Spencer and Monae's superbly sassy portrayal of her colleagues provide some light relief in a story that is often immensely frustrating for the women involved.
The real-life Johnson was belatedly handed a Presidential Medal for her achievements in 2015 and while that in itself is a well-deserved reward, Hidden Figures is an absorbing account that helps bring her story to a wider audience – and what a story it is.