I always approach movies that start with "based on a true story" with a bit of trepidation because far too often the statement should also include "with a lot of fictional stuff too." Hidden Figures is astonishing at capturing an astounding and often shameful era in our history. What makes Hidden Figures different is that, aside from the creation of a few fictional characters who are more composite characters, it strives to show a culture which many would like to think of as long past. Sadly, even today, we still see such beliefs rise up again and again.
I was born in the late 1950's. When I first learned of the idea of separate but equal and things like "colored only" bathrooms or drinking fountains, it was beyond my understanding. Yes, it's true. I grew up in a small town in Colorado which had no African Americans, and we were sheltered from the Civil Rights movement. I'm not saying that there were no people of color in my life. I would no sooner think of my Hispanic buddies as needing a separate fountains or bathrooms than I would a family member. The point is that such an idea I still find foreign and that is what makes Hidden Figures important. It brings to life a time that we must always guard against.
Hidden Figures is the story of three remarkable women from the early days of NASA. It is the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a NASA mathematician who calculated flight paths for the early space flights including John Glenn's historic orbit, Alan Shepard's first flight into space, the flight path for Apollo 11 and was involved in solving the problems of returning Apollo 13 safely home; Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), NASA's first African American and woman supervisor of the new IBM computer systems; and Mary Jackson, (Janelle Monáe), the remarkable first African American NASA engineer who won the right to attend White college extension classes in segregated West Virginia. These three ladies crossed lines of race, gender, and profession to not only work with the some of the greatest minds of the mid-Twentieth Century but became leaders of those teams tasked with the space race to the moon in the 1960s. It was a remarkable time of great change and turmoil and Johnson, Vaughn, and Johnson were astonishing people.
While characters like Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) are actually composite or even symbolic of people from the era. Al Harrison is actually a composite of three supervisors, and Stafford and Mitchell are symbolic of the problems that the three mathematicians or computers had to face. It gives us a chance to see that the people like Stafford and Mitchell weren't evil or villains, they were a product of the era. The problem of societal racism is one that still exists. The movie shows how easy it is not to be aware of the problem. As Mitchell tells Vaughn, "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all" (meaning African Americans), it is Vaughn's revealing reply for all to heed, "I know you probably believe that."
If you don't cheer, tear up a bit, or feel a burst of joy at the accomplishments and tenacity of these three "hidden figures," you have no heart. It is a wonderful story of tenacity and power. While some of the stories are a bit of fiction and some of the characters are fictional composites and symbols, Hidden Figures is a movie that not only reminds us of the problems and glory of our history but also reminds us that we must always guard and fight against becoming that society. Hidden Figures also offers us something else. It shows us hope and joy that we can become the society we should become. It is a story that should always be visible.