Thursday, February 2, 2017

`Hidden Figures' inspires with herstory -- Feb. 2, 2017


In the splendid movie “Hidden Figures,” astronaut John Glenn is about to blast into space and become the first American to orbit the Earth when he makes a request.

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” he tells NASA.

Katherine Johnson is the “girl” whose mathematical prowess Glenn trusts more than IBM computers to calculate the flight trajectory. She verifies the numbers and Glenn rockets into history on Feb. 20, 1962.

The story seems too good to be true, a Hollywood fabrication, but Glenn did ask for Johnson to do the math, NASA confirmed.   

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three black women mathematicians who worked in the NASA Langley Research Center in Jim Crow Virginia of the early 1960s.

Even though President Barrack Obama in 2015 gave Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, most Americans were unaware of the hundreds of women whose calculations helped put America into space.

Now, special screenings around the country during Black History Month are introducing girls and boys to women who love math and persevere against formidable odds, undaunted by discrimination and unfairness.     

Based on real people and facts, the movie was inspired by Margot Lee Setterly’s proposal for the book “Hidden Figures.” Producer Donna Gigliotti was so impressed she bought the movie rights before the book was completed.

Growing up in Hampton, Va., Setterly knew Johnson and heard stories about working at NASA from her dad, a research scientist. What seemed like no big deal in her hometown was largely unknown elsewhere.  

At times funny and others sad, the movie lets the brilliance, determination and patriotism of the women unfold in sharp contrast to the era’s benighted attitudes about race and women’s roles.

As TV news brings the civil rights movement into their living rooms, the women struggle to thrive in an environment where the work areas, lunch rooms, restrooms and water fountains are all segregated and promotions rare.  

Setterly, a 1991 University of Virginia graduate who worked on Wall Street and published an English language magazine in Mexico, began her research in 2010.

“It probably took three years of just research for me to just figure out how to tell the story -- really digging into these different strands of Virginia history, the history of these women,” she told, a space history and memorabilia website.

Her hard work paid off. “Hidden Figures” tops the Feb. 5 New York Times bestseller lists for combined print and e-book nonfiction and paperback nonfiction.

The film, a box office blockbuster, won the Screen Actors Guild award for feature cast ensemble and has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture and best writing for an adapted screenplay.

Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who plays Johnson’s supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, was nominated for best supporting actress.

R&B star Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who goes to court for the right to attend segregated night classes so she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. Kevin Costner is understated as Al Harrison, the decent boss who respects Johnson.

While some events and characters are fictionalized, the crux of the story is true, said director Theodore Melfi, who consulted during production with Setterly and NASA chief historian Bill Barry. Melfi took Taraji P. Henson, who plays Johnson, to meet the real Johnson, 98, to get a feel for her bearing and character.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, hired five white women as human “computers” in 1935 and brought in black women in the 1940s. Male engineers had done the calculations, but they hated spending their time that way.

“They realized the women were much more accurate, much faster and did a better job – and didn’t complain. And you could pay them less,” Barry said in a broadcast to schools. “That actually got put in a memo: `Isn’t this great? They do this great work and they’re cheap.’”

Great the work was, and so is “Hidden Figures.” There’s nothing cheap about the film. 

You could say seeing Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson as role models is pure gold – Oscar gold.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



  1. Thank you, Marsha, for a touching and beautiful review. When I was a lad, I had a big interest in the space program, but few of us knew who was doing the mathematical heavy lifting. I supposed NASA kept the computers' identity secret in part because they feared the backlash if their identities became known. What brave and intelligent ladies they were! P.S. You wrote that your column is a Trump-free zone. Could we expand that to the nation, world and universe? I'd like that. : ^ )

  2. Thank you, Dan. Re a Trump-free zone: You're not the only one!