by Anna Jílková

An American film of 2017, Hidden Figures portrays issues of the 1960s. These include the Cold War, civil and women’s rights activism and the first NASA space projects.


Katherine, a little African-American girl, is a brilliant mathematics student. Her teachers notice that and persuade her parents to support her as much as they can. And so she keeps going, finishes her studies and starts working in mathematics field. Yet, Katherine is not alone, there are three main characters to this story; three black women working as mathematicians in NASA – Katherine Goeble JohnsonDorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

Although known as “human computers”, their life in NASA is not simple at all. They encounter discrimination on daily basis because of their sex and race. However, these three women never give up; they manage to gain the promotion and eventually even the respect of their male co-workers. The whole NASA team is under great pressure as the “space race” with Russia evolves. It is the Russians who manage to send the first man into the space. And now everybody expects America to do the next step. To send the first person to orbit the Earth.

Katherine is elected to the Space Task Group, thus she is responsible for most of the calculations guaranteeing the safe return of astronaut John Glenn. Despite some technical problems, the mission is successful and they all celebrate a huge victory.


“Based on the untold true story” as the tagline claims, Hidden Figures not only demonstrates the struggles of African-American women in the 1960s, but the issues addressed can also be applicable to issues in American society today.

From the very first moment, when the three black women are stopped by a white policeman, we are introduced to the problem of racism – perhaps the most obvious message of the film. Dorothy cannot be promoted to be a supervisor because of the colour of her skin, Mary cannot attend a school and become an engineer. Katherine is forced to run over one kilometre to the toilet every day because there are no coloured bathrooms in her building.

At the same time, the film examines the cues for the state of tension between the USA and Russia after World War Two. Quoting the white policeman who stops the three women: “Damn Russians are watching us right now. […] We need to get up there before the communists do.”

“Based on the untold true story”

Even though the women’s situation is seemingly hopeless at the beginning, step by step they manage to strengthen their position.  We can see a series of professional successes followed by achievements in their personal lives as well. Despite the fact that the work environment dominates in the setting of the story, it is these small accomplishments in their private lives which make the story more human, and allows the audience to have a greater connection with the characters. Even though it deals with the complex and to most people unknown and difficult topic of astrophysics, the message of the film is clearly understandable.

When the NASA mission is also successfully completed, the true happy end is here. No surprising conclusion, not many action scenes and still it is hard to to turn your eyes away from the screen. All the scientific and technical elements are integrated well into the script and, add value to the film. Additionally, romantic involvements and family relationships enable the audience to sympathize with their heroines. The 126 minutes run-time is fast paced as well as it passes a new piece of knowledge and leaves you with a nice warm feeling saying that this time was not wasted at all. The persistency and power with which these women went after their dreams is admirable and gives the impression that everything is possible if you preserve.

Alex Antropov, flickr.com, CC BY 4.0

NASA Background

How Much of It Is a Reality?

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. (Margot Lee Shetterly)

This is the complete name of a book on which the film is based. By Margot Lee Shetterly, it was published only months before the film was released. Shetterly drew from a long research and several interviews with the actual women – Katherine Goeble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. So how much does the film follow the book and depict real life events?

The number of characters has been reduced, there has been some time shifting and some other nuances, but generally the film is faithful to the book. Examples of scenes which diverted from the reality are as following: Dorothy had already been promoted to supervisor by 1949, Mary did not have to go to court to get the approval to study in a whites-only school and Katherine’s children were already teenagers at that time.

“I say this all the time but the movie is not a documentary,” says director Ted Melfi in the interview for collectSpace.com (1). “There are little liberties taken here and there to dramatize, but the crux of the story is true.”

“It would be great for people to understand that there were so many more people,” explains Shetterly (4). “But I understand you can’t make a movie with 300 characters. It is simply not possible.”

The importance of this film was acknowledged even by the NASA’s chief historian Bill Barry. “I think that in these days, in particular, filmmakers have a huge responsibility to stay true to history because most people will go to see the movie and they are never going to read the book (2).”

There were some contrary opinions as well, of course. Some astronauts and historians let themselves hear that the film did not reflect accurately involved people. On the other hand, in Shetterly’s words even the real Katherine Jackson saw and liked the film. “So I think that is pretty much the highest praise you can give,” says Shetterly (3).



(born 1918)

Three most important men in Katherine’s life are represented in her surname. Her father Joshua McKinley Coleman, her first husband James Goeble and her second husband Liv Johnson.

Katherine skipped two grades at elementary school due to her excellent performance whereby she even overtook her brother who is three-years older than her. The town, where they all grew up, had no high school for African-American children, so every autumn, the children moved with their mother to a house 200km away and came back again for summer to their father, who worked as a farmer.

Katherine graduated from college with great honour and started working as a teacher in a black public school. It was not until 1952 when she found out about open positions at NACA (later NASA). She decided to move with her husband and their three children, and in 1943 she started to work in Dorothy Vaughan’s team. It took just a couple of weeks and Katherine was promoted to the Flight Research Division. Unfortunately, her husband died of cancer in 1956.

She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. Shephard was the first American in the space. However, her biggest success is the mission Friendship 7 with astronaut John Glenn. The complexity of orbital flight required a lot of time and effort. John Glenn required Katherine to personally verify the calculations of his flight. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a huge success after all.

even the real Katherine Jackson saw and liked the film

She loved her job and gave it all her heart. “I loved going to work every single day,” said Katherine. NASA represented a comfortable environment for her. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research.” Her work was eventually acknowledged and awarded. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from president Obama in 2015, and NASA named one of their buildings in Hampton after her. (4, 5)



(1910 – 2008)

Dorothy joined NACA in 1943. Before that she worked as a mathematics teacher. She was assigned to NASA’s West Area Computing, a segregated group of black female mathematicians. Thanks to hard work, this group managed to keep its position and Dorothy was promoted to a leader of this group in 1949, becoming the first black supervisor in NASA. She always fought for the rights of the women in her group and later she protected even the white female computers from other groups.

In 1958 NACA changed its name to NASA and  ended segregation. West Computing was abolished and Dorothy, together with many other women, joined the new Analysis and Computing Division.

Dorothy got her B.A. diploma in mathematics from Wilberforce University in. Although encouraged to keep studying, she decided to start working as a teacher and support her family in times of crisis. (6)



(1920 – 2005)

Mary graduated from Hampton Institute with a degree in Mathematics and Physical Science and then began working as a math teacher. She changed her career twice before she started working at NACA in 1951 with Dorothy Vaughan as a supervisor. Later, she had to ask for special permission from the City of Hampton in order to apply for a training program at the University of Virginia. She overcame the challenge and in 1958 became NASA’s first African-American female engineer.

She was also involved in humanitarian work. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science,” said Mary in an article for the local newspaper when she was helping youngsters in the science club in 1970s. Apart from that she worked as a Girl Scout leader for more than 20 years. (7)

The fates of these three women are closely connected. They all had to encounter difficulties due to their race and sex from a young age. However, they all obtained their degrees and started working as mathematics teachers. Later in their lives they actively defended their rights and showed what they were capable of.

1, 2, 3 collectSPACE. ‘Hidden Figures’: ‘The Right Stuff’ vs. Real Stuff in New Film About NASA History. CollectSPACE.com. 26 December 2016. Web. 15 March 2017 – link: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-122616a-hidden-figures-right-stuff-history.html

Margot Lee Shetterly. Katherine Johnson Biography. Nasa.gov. 1 December 2016. Web. 15 March 2017. – link: https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography

5  J. J. O’Connor, E. F. Robertson. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. October 2016. Web. 15 March 2017. – link:  http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Johnson_Katherine.html

Margot Lee Shetterly. Dorothy Vaughan Biography. Nasa.gov. 1 December 2016. Web. 15 March 2017. – link: https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography

Margot Lee Shetterly. Mary Jackson Biography. Nasa.gov. 2 December 2016. Web. 15 March 2017. – link: https://www.nasa.gov/content/mary-jackson-biography

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