Hidden Figures – a movie review

Released in theaters

  • Jan, 2017


  • 93% – Rotten Tomatoes Critics
  • 94% – Rotten Tomatoes Movie Goers
  • 90% – Roger Koehler

Rotten Tomatoes Reviews



  • Taraji P. Henson
  • Octavia Spencer
  • Janelle Monae
  • Kevin Kostner
  • Jim Parsons
  • Kirsten Dunst

Directed by

  • Ted Melfi

Roger’s Review – Written, Feb 3, 2017

I strongly recommend seeing this movie on a number of levels.  For those of you who have seen La La Land, and perhaps have also read my review, you will no doubt have some varying opinions about the lack of a perfect, Hollywood-style, feel good ending to that movie.  I personally did not mind that it did not tie up all of the loose ends.

Hidden Figures  does indeed provide the traditional feel good Hollywood ending, but only because the facts of what actually happened did in fact turn out that way.  I’m quite certain that you will leave the theater feeling greatly uplifted by what you see.

I am equally hopeful that you will leave the theater, as I did, acutely ashamed and profoundly embarrassed by how the main characters, and extrapolated to an entire race of human beings were, and in many ways are still, treated by another race.  What can possibly excuse or in any way justify the inhumane treatment foisted upon one group of people by another?  The sense of entitlement and assumption of superiority is thoroughly disgusting.  And what was depicted in this movie is just the tip of the injustice and prejudice that has had so much darker results.

That said, this movie does not hit you over the head, or preach about prejudice.  But I think it is made even more powerful by not doing so.  It certainly allowed me to reach the conclusion quite clearly on my own.

The movie is adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was published just last year in 2016.  The story revolves around true events (the old “inspired by true events” disclaimer) from the perspective of the engineers working for NASA in 1957 up until John Glenn successfully orbited the Earth in February of 1962.  It begins with the powerful challenge to the US space program which resulted from the Russians putting the first satellite into space – Sputnik in 1957 – and then putting the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, before the Americans had even sent our first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space.

The story focuses particularly on the lives of three, African-American women who each played a pivotal role, initially in manned space flight and then the successful Earth orbital flight of John Glenn, and later as members of NASA continuing in the space program.

In the late 1950’s, the three women are part of the “Colored Computer” group working within NASA.  There are about another 30 African-American women working in that same group.  Dorothy Vaughn is their “supervisor” in reality, but is given neither the title nor compensation that is due the position.  When the IBM mainframe is introduced to provide NASA greatly stepped up ability to process calculations, Dorothy learns the necessary FORTRAN language on her own to make the computer do what the other “experts” have not yet been able to accomplish.

Katherine Johnson is selected to assist the all-white, all-male group of engineers that is working on the trajectory figures needed to put men into space and return them successfully.  She is forced to deal with many “colored only” issues, such as the nearest colored woman’s bathroom being over a half a mile, on foot, from where she works.  She also has to deal with the jealousy and male-only attitudes of the majority of the people with whom she works.

Mary Jackson is selected to assist a team that is dealing with the problem of making the heat-resistant barrier hold up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  She is encouraged by some of her co-workers to take graduate courses in order to receive an engineering degree but she is up against the prejudice of other co-workers, and of the segregated education system in Virginia.

Astronaut John Glenn has a significant role in this movie, as not only is his orbital flight the focus for all of the work, but he is also a maverick and develops an intense trust in Katherine Johnson’s calculations, and a general mistrust of those new computers.  I always have admired the man, but I came away with a new, and very positive sense of the man based upon the portrayal in this movie.  In doing research afterwards, it appears that the portrayal is quite accurate.

The personal lives of Katherine Johnson (widowed mother of three girls) and of Mary Jackson, are given a significant amount of screen time.  I would venture that the pretty much saccharine quality of those relationships is a stretch from actual reality.  Also, the actual timing of certain of the events has been compressed, and had some literary license applied – hence the “inspired by true events” disclaimer.  But again, in doing research about the movie, and about the main characters, it appears that the essential facts of the movie follow quite closely to how events occurred, if not always in the actual timing.

Relating to other things about the movie that necessitated the “inspired by true events” disclaimer, I have since learned that the NASA director, played by Kevin Kostner, and the head NASA engineer, played by Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper on the The Big Bang Theory) are actually composite figures.  Kostner’s character is a composite of three different directors to whom Katherine Johnson reported.  Parsons’ character, while completely fictional, is a composite of the types of attitudes that certainly existed in the 1950’s and 60’s.  I have read that the real Johnson, although certainly being aware of the racism and prejudice outside of NASA, did not really feel much of that same prejudice while at work.  She generally felt she was accepted because everyone had a job to do, and had the same goal.

Among the numerous You Tube videos, I recommend this brief video (6 minutes).  It is narrated in part by the author, Margot Lee Shetterly, and provides a good background about the movie, including her views on the screen adaptation and the differences between it and the novel.  The trailer from the film is also included in this video.

The movie has been nominated for three Academy awards – Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer) and Best Adapted Screenplay.  (Update:  Hidden Figures did not win any of the three nominations).  Given that the book was only published just last year (2016), it might also qualify for Best (and most quickly) Adapted Screenplay as well, if there was such an award.  My guess is that Best Picture may come down to La La Land  vs. Hidden Figures, and I would not be shocked to see Hidden Figures  bring home Best Picture, although I still suspect that La La Land  retains the inside track. (Update:  In one of the biggest snafus in Oscar history, Moonlight won Best Picture, but only after the Oscar was erroneously first presented to La La Land.)

The primary character, Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), portrayed in the movie by Taraji P. Henson, is now 98 and still living.  She was a physicist and mathematician.  She manually calculated the trajectories, for launch and orbit, and also for re-entry, that were so vital to not only successfully putting men into space, but also to bringing them back to Earth unharmed.  After Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth, she continued to work for NASA and her calculations were critical to the success of the first manned, moon landing in 1969.  Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.

Dorothy Vaughn, portrayed by Octavia Spenser, was also a mathematician who became the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at NASA.  She also later headed the programming section of NASA that successfully used the first IBM computer mainframe to augment those massive calculations necessary to calculate trajectories.  Vaughn died in 2008 at the age of 98.

Like the other two women, Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monae, was also a mathematician.  She eventually became NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer, along the way becoming the first black woman to attend graduate-level courses in math and physics from a previously segregated high school connected to the University of Virginia.  By the end of her career, she achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 84.

In summary, I highly recommend this movie.  It is disturbing at times, as it certainly should be, but it is ultimately quite inspirational.


2 thoughts on “Hidden Figures – a movie review”

  1. I, too, was embarrassed and ashamed seeing what those women had to endure working at NASA in 1961. I was a senior in high school in Milwaukee at that time and, in my little cacoon, had no idea of the hardships they had to endure for the simple things I took for granted. The movie was historic, informative and really well done.


    1. Wow, this proves that you really have read through a bunch of my posts. The movie was well done. Did you by any chance take a look at the video which included comments by the author? I was interested to hear her take on the differences between the movie screenplay and some of the actual events. She was pretty much OK with it because they got the most important stuff correct.

      By the way, I found out about that Prego spaghetti commercial music when I was trying to track it down to see where it came from. I fully expected it to be from some classical composer. Little did I know it was written specifically for that commercial. Kind of like those famous songwriters who have written jingles specifically for TV commercials. Barry Manilow wrote a lot of them … “Just like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”


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