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Film / Hidden Figures

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Meet the computers of 1961.

Karl Zielinski: Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary Jackson: I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one.

Hidden Figures is a 2016 biographical comedy-drama film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. The film also features Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell and Mahershala Ali.

The film recounts the story of the African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who, while working in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, helped NASA catch up in the Space Race. Using their calculations, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of the Earth.

Hidden Figures provides examples of:

  • Age Lift:
    • Katherine's children were teenagers when she first married Jim Johnson. The movie makes them far younger.
    • John Glenn was in his forties when he went into space. Here he's in his late twenties.
  • Artistic Licence – History:
    • Dorothy is depicted as being promoted to supervisor only after John Glenn's flight. In reality she was promoted in 1949. What's more is that the segregated computing facilities had been abolished at the end of the '50s, so the department was integrated at that point.
    • Katherine is shown having to run across the lot so she can use the segregated bathrooms — when this was Mary in real life. Katherine just started using the white bathroom, unaware that there was a problem. It was years before someone complained, and Katherine simply ignored it (and the issue was dropped).
    • Mary didn't need to get a court order to attend her classes. She just asked the city of Hampton for an exception, and it was granted.
    • The film depicts Katherine being assigned to Flight Research much later than in real life; she was assigned in 1953 and had co-authored her first report by 1960. She also gained access to editorial meetings through persistence.
    • While John Glenn did specifically ask for Katherine to check the figures, she had a few days to look over them, as opposed to a few hours.
  • Artistic Licence – Military: Jim Johnson is shown wearing a dress uniform that has practically no markings when it should have had unit patches on the shoulders, a name plate on the right breast, and a ribbon rack on the left breast along with an assortment of badges and qualifications.
  • As You Know:
    • The vectors with unknown values (speed, distance, deceleration, etc.) that are required to get John Glenn's capsule landed back on Earth safety are asked by Katherine and confirmed by Paul during Paul's briefing on the subject to all of the mathematicians. Justified, as this is an actual rocket science problem being discussed, and it clues the audience in on the level of work needed and the stakes involved.
    • Paul Stafford explaining to his team how Glenn would go into an elliptical orbit around the Earth and a parabolic orbit for landing. These are day-one rocket science concepts being introduced for the viewer — it's not the type of talk that would happen at NASA in reality, even that early in the space race.
  • Badass Boast: Katherine listing off her skills and qualifications to a dismissive Jim Johnson, before excusing herself and walking off.
  • Benevolent Boss: Mary's boss urges her to go for a promotion to engineer, noting that if a Polish Jewish refugee like himself can make it in America, so can she. Truth in Television, as he was her longtime mentor and supporter in real life.
  • Black and Nerdy: While Mary and Dorothy (and really all the NASA computers) are smart, Katherine is a true nerd.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: Downplayed example. Mary Jackson is clearly enjoying the view when the astronauts (all white men) come to visit their facility, which makes Katherine chastise her for "ogling [those] white men." Mary brushes it off.
    Mary: I have the right to see "fine" in every color.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment: Happens twice:
    • As Vivian escorts Katherine to the Space Task Group's Flight Research Division to be their new [human] computer, Katherine follows with her necessary computing equipment and desk items in a cardboard box. She carries the box like a shield as she is introduced to her new, all-white coworkers.
    • After Katherine is told she's no longer needed in the Space Task Group now that NASA's IBM computer is performing calculations for them, she packs all her desk items and a few gifts from coworkers into a similar box and leaves.
  • Casting Gag: The mathematicians are referred to as "calculators" (since the tech version barely existed at the time), but this is still funny in relation to Janelle Monae, one of the calculators, and her longstanding persona as an android.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • Dorothy is introduced fixing a car and mentions she grew up around machines and more tech savvy than most. She also stole a programming book from the library after hearing talk of NASA bringing in IBM computers that would make her job obsolete. Both made her one of the few at NASA who knew how to operate the IBM.
    • Katherine knows the absolute fastest route from the Colored Computers room to Mission Control from all the times she had to run to the bathroom, which comes in handy when she has to get her calculations for John Glenn's flight over there.
  • Chick Magnet: Both Dorothy and Mary compliment Jim Johnson on his good looks, with Katherine failing at denying his said good looks.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience:
  • Composite Character:
    • Other than the women themselves all NASA personnel are fictionalized, as the film shows the size and infrastructure of NASA was insane in the '60s, so they created new characters representing different areas. Al Harrison is a mashup of three different NASA directors. Same with Vivian Mitchell and Paul Stafford: both intended to be more of a metaphor for white complacency.
    • NASA itself is conflated with its predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA in 1958. NACA had an official segregation policy but NASA didn't anymore. This is clearer in the book, and the incidents regarding segregation are based on experiences that took place earlier in real life.
  • Compressed Hair: Katherine's hair appears to be short and curly, but when she gets soaked after a bathroom run, it turns out to be much longer.
  • Computer Equals Tapedrive: The huge new IBM mainframe that NASA acquire to speed up their calculations; yes, the whole system really takes up an enormous room, and yes, we do see the reels moving. Punched cards, too.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Hidden Figures can refer both to figures in the mathematical equations the protagonists are trying to solve, and to the fact that they themselves are historical figures whose importance has been overlooked until now.
  • Easily Forgiven: Katherine is suspected of being a Soviet spy because she knows the plans for the Atlas rocket. It's revealed that the pens that the men are using to redact documents aren't dark enough to blot out the information. Either could be grounds for termination (either of Katherine, who knows information higher than her security clearance, or of Stafford, who hasn't been redacting his work properly), but Harrison is understanding, gets Katherine a Top Secret security clearance, and tells the other staff (almost as an afterthought) that they should get darker ink.
  • Easily Impressed: An initially hostile police officer ends up giving the three women a police escort to work after they imply that they know the Mercury astronauts.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Mary shamelessly does this to both Jim Johnson and the Mercury astronauts, asserting that if she has equal rights, "I have the right to see fine in every color."
  • Establishing Character Moment: The car breaking down at the beginning, for each of the three women.
    • Katherine is daydreaming out the car window about math.
    • Dorothy is the one under the car fixing it.
    • Mary is standing by making funny comments.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: For the duration of one scene. Katherine's normally curly hair gets drenched straight in the rain for the scene where she rants about the racism in the office to her co-workers.
  • First-Name Basis: Inverted. Dorothy calling Vivian "Mrs. Mitchell," while Vivian calls her "Dorothy," is a sign of Dorothy's lack of power in the relationship, not any closeness between them. Vivian referring to Dorothy as "Mrs. Vaughn" after Dorothy's promotion is a sign of respect.
  • Foregone Conclusion: John Glenn's pod has some trouble with the heat shield. If it fails, it will surely kill him. It's Played for Drama in the movie, but most people in the audience will be at least somewhat familiar with Senator John Glenn, the former astronaut. At the very least, most audience members will know that he died in December 2016 at the age of ninety-five, long after his orbit (plus becoming the oldest person to go into space in 1998).
  • Genre Savvy: Dorothy realizes early on that the new IBM computer is going to replace human computers — and that electronic computers in general are going to be the wave of the future — and teaches herself and her staff FORTRAN programming. They're all hired on en masse into the computer group and form the nucleus of the new IT department.
  • Good Old Ways: Math-wise. Katherine suggests using Euler's method at one point, which is considered "ancient."
  • Harmful to Minors: Coming home late one night, Mary returns to find her children and their father watching the news regarding a bus bombing. Mary asks for her children to leave the room, but Levi insists they keep watching it.
  • Hero of Another Story: John Glenn is the one going into space under somewhat risky circumstances, and he gets some focus but the movie is more about the people working on the math to let him do that, and the circumstances that let people like Katherine get there in the first place.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade:
    • Mary Jackson, as played by Janelle Monáe.
    • John Glenn too, which is glaringly obvious when real footage of him is shown towards the end. What's more is that Glen Powell is about fifteen years younger than the real John was when he went into space.
  • Innocent Bigot:
    • When Jim first meets Katherine he can’t hide his surprise that women are contributing to the space program.
    • Similarly, Vivian does seem to like Dorothy, given her line about having "Nothing against y'all" (with "y'all" referring to African-Americans in general). As Dorothy's response indicates — "I know... I know that you probably believe that" — the bigotry is more systemic and therefore "innocent" than blatant, which arguably makes it worse.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Played for Laughs with how Dorothy justifies taking the FORTRAN book from the library. She tells her children that a public library is paid for by taxes; she pays taxes, which means she pays for the library to function; and since it's impossible to steal something you've already paid for, she hasn't stolen anything.
  • Ironic Echo: Dorothy tries again and again to be promoted to supervisor, as she's doing the work for none of the pay, but her white counterpart tells her there's nothing she can do. When Dorothy finally gets moved up to being in charge of the IBM computing department, she gets asked if the white computers can also join. Dorothy says that's the sort of decision a supervisor would make.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Stafford. He's brusque, arrogant, and stuck on bureaucratic rules, but it also becomes clear that his antipathy toward Katherine isn't about race or even gender. It's more about the fact that he doesn't like his work being checked by anyone, since he's convinced he's done it right to start with. When Katherine's skill becomes obvious, he feels threatened by her. In the end, though, he comes to recognize her value and begins to give her the credit she deserves.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: During a test of the model Mercury orbiter's heat shield, the test starts when Mary is still inside the test tunnel. When one of her high heels is caught in a vent, Mary struggles to get it free before the test starts, but can't get it loose and ends up ditching her shoes.
  • Mama Bear: When Dorothy and her sons are forced to leave a library because they were in the "white" section, she shouts at a policeman who roughly grabbed her sons.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The film begins with a young Katherine being moved into an elite school on a full scholarship while also moving her from the sixth grade into the eighth grade. While there, she impresses the entire classroom by solving a complex mathematical equation on the chalk board.
  • Mistaken for Servant: On Katherine's first day with the mathematicians, one of them hands her a garbage can, complaining, "This wasn't emptied last night", then walking away, oblivious to Katherine's trying to tell him that she isn't the custodian.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Mary intends to become an engineer, earning dual bachelor's degrees in math and physics, but the requirements are changed partway through her application to require graduate ones as well. Upon hearing this, she bitterly muses: "Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line. Every time."
  • No Antagonist: The level and pervasiveness of institutional racism (and, albeit not as touched upon, sexism) in the American South of the 1960s is the real antagonist. None of the white characters are actively trying to undermine or attack the leads (even though Stafford is insecure about Katherine's greater mathematical ability), they mostly serve as roadblocks to the leads' success by insisting "That's just how things are."
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: The police officer at the beginning of the movie is clearly racially-prejudiced against the three leads, but gains respect for them when he finds out that they're NASA scientists (noting that their presence is important to make sure the Russians don't destroy the United States). He also offers to escort them to make sure their car doesn't break down again.
  • Oral Fixation: Harrison is constantly seen chewing gum.
  • Potty Emergency: Katherine, constantly, because she has to run across the Langley campus and back to use a segregated women's bathroom. As such, what could be a basic five minute trip to the ladies room down the hallway becomes a forty minute sprint she has to do several times a day, to the point that she even takes the paperwork she's assigned with her to the restroom so that she can keep working on it.
  • Race Against the Clock: A countdown until the wind tunnel starts when Mary needs to get out before the Mach 1 winds (609 mph/980 kph, so yeah - lethal) begin.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Mr. Harrison realizes that Katherine has been out for forty minutes and asks her where she's been. She's soaking wet, having just run half a mile in a skirt and heels in the pouring rain just to use the bathroom. She snaps, rightfully angry at how she's been treated by him and the other mathematicians. This takes everyone aback and prompts Harrison to abolish segregated coffee pots and bathrooms on the campus.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The movie ends with photos of the three real protagonists, illustrating the further contributions to science they went on to make after the events of the film.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Al Harrison. While he's not especially personable, and often oblivious to what Katherine's going through, his only goal is to win the space race, and that means having the smartest people working for him, without regard to race or gender. When things like segregation or pecking orders stand in the way of that goal, he makes whatever changes are necessary.
    • To a lesser extent, the judge that Mary Jackson petitions to allow her to attend classes at a segregated white school. He opens by commenting that segregation is still the law in Virginia, no matter what the Supreme Court says, suggesting that he's already made up his mind. Nonetheless, he does actually listen to and consider her arguments and ultimately allows her to take night courses.
    • While Vivian is reluctant to take risks for her subordinates, she does offer them opportunities at the beginning of the movie, and is apparently willing to reflect upon her own prejudice and provide more help and appreciation to Dorothy.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Well, not anyone individually; more "The Reason NASA Sucks." Katherine delivers an epic roasting of the segregated policies, both blatant (segregated bathrooms) and subtle (everyone refusing to use the coffee pot after Katherine touches it on her first day, and a separate pot marked "colored" appearing on her second), of the program.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Mary and her husband Levi. Mary is a blue oni, favoring overcoming segregation by working hard and pushing her away up the system. Levi is a red oni, preferring open protest to overthrow the system, viewing mere hard work as incapable of overcoming violence from bigotry.
  • Reentry Scare: Used for drama in the climax, as the seconds tick by and they waiting to see if John Glenn has survived reentry with his perhaps-malfunctioning heat shield.
  • Retired Badass: For a somewhat younger example, Jim is a Korean War hero, but one whose combat days are behind him and who isn't directly involved in what's happening at NASA.
  • Running Gag: Literally, but used for dramatic effect. Katherine has to run across campus to use the bathroom in a separate building. By the end of the movie, a white male mathematician runs across the campus to come find her at John Glenn's request, and then she has to sprint back with him.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: A positive example. After Katherine defiantly explains how she has to go half a mile to use the colored bathrooms, Harrison responds by personally knocking down the “Colored Women’s Bathroom” sign in front of a mass of onlookers and desegregating the NASA bathrooms.
    Harrison: At NASA we all pee the same color.
    • Happens again when Katherine insists on attending the NASA briefings to do her job more efficiently. Paul keeps pointing out that she no clearance and there is no protocol for women to attend but Mr. Harrison changes that.
    Katherine: You are the boss. You just have to act like one...sir."
    • Mary also invokes this trope while appealing to a judge for permission to take graduate-level classes at a white-only school (in a still-segregated Virginia, no less) in order to become an engineer. She points out that he's the only person that can possibly make it happen, and reminds him that someone has to be the first to break precedent and create new rules, using him as a case in point. He's moved by the argument and interprets the law to allow her to join the night school courses.
  • Second Love: Katherine is a widow with three daughters. A side-plot of the film is her developing romance and eventual marriage with Jim Johnson.
  • Shipper on Deck: Dorothy, Mary, Katherine's daughters and mother all think Katherine and Jim Johnson would be great together.
  • Showing Up Chauvinists: At first, some of the senior staff disbelieved that women could handle the number-crunching of rocket science. The documented calculations of these women consistently checks out, quieting the doubters.
  • Shown Their Work: The filmmakers went out of their way to ensure that nearly every key aspect of the original story remained intact, going as far as to spend a fair chunk of time grilling Langley Space Center historian Bill Barry.
    • John Glenn's request that Katherine recheck the calculations right before launch; it sounds like something popped in for drama, but he actually requested that she do it.
    • The Soviet space program really did use a dummy nicknamed "Ivan Ivanovich" (the Russian equivalent of "John Doe" or "Joe Bloggs") in two test flights just prior to Yuri Gagarin's flight.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: When Vivian promotes Dorothy to supervisor, she has changed out of her usual black suits to a white one.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Katherine and Jim Johnson. She's a widow with three young girls, he's a National Guardsman. They got married and were together for 58 years until his death in 2019.
  • Stay in the Kitchen:
    • Touched upon. When the main characters aren't being challenged because of their race, it's for their gender.
    Mary: We go from being our fathers' daughters, to our husbands' wives, to our babies' mothers.
    • Mary states that if she was a white man, she wouldn't want to be an engineer, she'd be one already. Her husband gives her a hard time for working outside the home before he gets over it. When she enters the first of her classes, the teacher opines he's afraid the class would be too much for a woman.
    • When Harrison tells the team they will be working late, he says to them to "call your wives", even with Katherine and a secretary in the room, one of whom has a mother living with her and her three daughters.
    • Even Jim Johnson, when he meets Katherine, can't believe that she's actually capable of doing her job. He does apologize for it.
  • Stereotype Flip: After the trio is inspected by a cop but eventually offered an escort to NASA headquarters, Mary takes great pleasure in driving as close to the cop car's rear as possible, because for once, they get to be the ones chasing the police.
  • Sudden Soundtrack Stop: Played for Drama and subverted. During the movie's climax, when Katherine has just performed the math to calculate John Glenn's return trajectory, she rushes with the Mission Control rep to bring the figures to the group... and before she can enter, the door is slammed in her face. The soundtrack goes dead as Katherine stands alone in the hallway, stunned. It's a massive relief when the scientists open the door for her and allow her to come inside.
  • Team Power Walk: Dorothy leading her black computers across the campus to the IBM lab, backed by triumphant music.
  • Truth in Television: Segregated bathrooms, water fountains, buses and libraries were very real in the 1960s, as evidenced by some of the historical photographs displayed alongside the credits.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Several of the elements of the story were compressed or embroidered to suit the narrative. The bathroom drama, for example, was very exaggerated for the movie: in the book, it was Mary who had trouble finding a bathroom, in an unfamiliar building where she had been sent to work. Katherine apparently used the white women's restroom for years with no one complaining, and when someone did complain, she just ignored it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Mary loses her shoe in a Race Against the Clock in the wind tunnel. She takes off the remaining shoe once she gets to safety and the story isn't brought up again.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The lives of the three leading characters including the accolades they eventually received are given.
  • Where da White Women At?: Inverted. When the astronauts are shaking the hands of the staff and crew, Mary remarks on how attractive John Glenn is, and when Katherine and Dorothy rib her for this, Mary immediately states that beauty is color-blind, so she gets to eat all the eye candy.
  • White Man's Burden: Katherine is transferred to a new building, where there are no bathrooms for black women. So every time she needs to relieve herself, she has to run across the campus to a building with a "Colored" bathroom. Her white boss Harrison discovers this only when Katherine returns to her desk from a bathroom break, drenched after running for half an hour in the rain. He is aghast, apparently having been unaware racism was taking place under his nose. So he picks up a crowbar, heads to the bathroom, and smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign. Then, as a crowd of black women look on, he delivers a powerful, funny rejection of Jim Crow segregation: "No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms... Here at NASA, we all pee the same color."note 


Video Example(s):


Hidden Figures- Bathrooms Desegregated

At NASA, everyone pees the same color, thanks to Kevin Costner. (Even though in real life, the Black employees just integrated the bathrooms themselves.)

How well does it match the trope?

4.38 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / WhiteMansBurden

Media sources: