Hidden Figures: History through Hollywood

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For my movie choice, I chose the movie Hidden Figures. It is a historical book to screen adaptation about the life of three intelligent African-American women that work for NASA. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) serve as the most influential help behind one of the United States’ greatest operations and that is the launch of John Glenn. With their brains, Glenn was able to pilot the Mercury 7 into space and successfully complete three orbits around the earth and was the first American astronaut to do so. The focus of the movie is on the Langley Research Center located in Hampton, Virginia and follows the women and what it was like for them in the events leading up to the launch.

For the most part, Hollywood portrays the truth with just a little bit of fiction to keep the movie entertaining because it is not a documentary. From the beginning, there are a few examples of what Hollywood got right. At one point, Katherine mentions that her father moved her family over 120 miles each school year just so that her and her siblings could get an education, because the town that they grew up in only offered education up to the 8th grade for African-Americans and Katherine’s father was determined to put all his children through high school. The movie also portrays something very common during the time and that is segregation and you see that throughout the film, especially in one specific scene. Whenever Katherine Johnson left the group of “computers,” she went to work for another team where she had the responsibility of double checking the calculations completed by other team members. Because of her being with a new team she was in a completely different building, one of which that did not have bathrooms for African-Americans, so you see that in a scene where it cuts to Johnson running back and forth from her work area to the segregated bathrooms that are entirely on the other side of the campus. Another instance of Hollywood portraying the truth is when Dorothy Vaughan becomes NASA’s, which was formally known as NACA, first African-American supervisor after continuously begging her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for available job openings for a supervising position. While the movie shows all three working at the same time, Vaughan obtained this title in 1948, which was a few years before Katherine Johnson officially started working for NASA. At one point in the movie, there is a scene where Johnson tries to attend a private briefing within the space program and was denied access because women did not usually attend. This sounds like something that could be completely fictional to add drama to the plot, but it was entirely true. Like the truth, she was eventually let into the briefings.

While the movie did get a majority of the history behind these three women right there were some things within the movie that was fictional. A good example of this are three characters that show up often throughout the film and they are Katherine Johnson's boss Al Harrison, Dorothy Vaughan's supervisor Violet Mitchell, and Katherine Johnson's coworker Paul Stafford. These three characters are entirely fictional and were only composite characters that helped portray the story. As mentioned earlier there was a scene where Johnson had to run across campus to use the restroom, this scene wasn’t entirely true. According to Margot Lee Shetterly's book, Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space, instead of this situation being experienced by Johnson it was more of something Mary Jackson had to deal with, and the whole running across the compound was more of an exaggeration for the sake of creating drama for the film. Another scene that was completely made up was when Johnson entered her new work environment and her white coworkers thought she was just a janitor. This was added by the filmmakers because it was something that never happened, Overall, the movie portrayed the truth with only minor details that were fictional. This is something many films like this do to capture the audiences’ attention and to educate the audience on certain things that were going on during the story’s time period, like segregation and racism.

Whenever I first watched this film it did, in fact, leave me wanting to know more and I believe it should leave everyone wanting to know more. This film and the backstory are so important because it tells the story of three brilliant and fearless women who went against every single obstacle they encountered to accomplish their dreams. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for these women to do so. Everyone deserves to witness this story, especially women of color. This story shows that it does not matter if you are a woman or what the color of your skin is, anything is possible as long as you persevere and do not give up if any challenge comes your way. I wish that I had heard about these women before I watched the film because I do not think history has been very kind of them. Whenever space travel is mentioned throughout history books you always hear about mostly the astronauts and maybe a little information of what went into the missions. People like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan deserve more recognition because, without them and the work they did for NASA, John Glenn would not have made it to space and back. Towards the film, it even stresses that with the truth, because at one point Johnson's department no longer needs her when they finally get the International Business Machine set up to do the calculations for the mission and others beyond that. But in the end, Al Harrison and an extra in the film realize the IBM calculations are off and they instantly get ahold of Katherine Johnson to confirm the calculations for a safe landing.

In short, Hollywood did well sticking to a mostly factual way of telling this story, with little to none fictional information added to the storyline. Even when the filmmakers did add such things to the movie it was only to help tell the story further. I believe they did a very good job of getting the untold story of the three women and what they did across. It was certainly an inspiring film that I would recommend everyone to watch.

Works Cited

Lee Shetterly, Margot. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. First edition. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016.

Melfi, Theodore, Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Allison Schroeder, Mandy Walker, Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch, Peter Teschner, Wynn P. Thomas, Rene?e E. Kalfus, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Mona?e, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, and Margot L. Shetterly. Hidden Figures. , 2017.

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Hidden Figures: History Through Hollywood. (2020, Aug 13). Retrieved July 12, 2024 , from

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