Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures: On Racism, the Space Race and Math

hidden figures review theodore melfi
Written by Dennis D McDonald

Hidden Figures is the story of three brilliant young black women who worked to put John Glenn into orbit for NASA. Here’s Dennis D. McDonald’s review.

aNewDomaindennis d. mcdonald — Perhaps you are already probably familiar with the early-1960s story portrayed in Theodore Melfi’s film, Hidden Figures.

NASA Langley Research Center hires three African-American women to support the engineering and mathematics efforts behind getting American astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

Tasked with basic number crunching and data reduction, the women turn out to be real calculating gems, a fact NASA comes to realize only grudgingly.

Hidden Figures follows these women in that quest for recognition. One is a math prodigy (Taraji P. Henson). The second (Janelle Monáe) dreams of becoming an engineer. The third (Octavia Spencer) is driven by a prescient vision of computer programming as the wave of the future. This film is the story of those three brilliant young women — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — had to deal with in their quest to put Glenn into orbit and the gender and racial biases they had to fight along the way..

The film does a great job of communicating lots of basics, like: Numbers are numbers. If you want to overcome gravity there’s no getting around Newton by using guesses instead of facts. Part of good leadership is seeing beyond the numbers and making sure the team sees beyond the numbers as well, as is stated early on by Kevin Costner’s character.

hidden figures reviewAlso, this film really gives you a flavor of what a roomful of engineers would’ve looked like back then — a sea of neckties, white shirts, and white faces. You can’t come away from it without seeing that here was a hell of a lot of trial and error in those early days of the space race. Things changed rapidly as people and technology kept testing the boundaries. Which makes you wonder: How many errors arose because people didn’t have access to the right information because they couldn’t get it soon enough?

But the film isn’t perfect. The stories about the women felt flat at times. And it missed a number of opportunities for great period detail, too. I wanted to see more slide rules and mechanical calculators in action, but that was not to be.

Also, some of the technical details of the Mercury spacecraft as illustrated on screen were a bit dodgy.

Still, it was exciting to see a room-filling IBM mainframe computer along with 80-column punch cards and mentions of FORTRAN.

Despite these lapses, Hidden Figures does deftly represent an amalgamation of late-1950s and early 1960s culture — and without a lot of philosophy or yelling.

The US vs Soviet Union space race is the backdrop here, along with the rampant racism and institutional sexism these women doubly faced, but Hidden Figures isn’t heavy-handed. And it doesn’t portray these women only as symbols of a movement. Rather, it portrays them as intelligent young professionals who must swim against the tides both of their own culture and its arguments for accommodation.

Despite the historic and sometimes deadly events of the Civil Rights movement swirling around them — for that is a backdrop, too, in this film — we never lose sight of them as individuals with families, hopes, and dreams.

Now, of course, we know about the eventual success of Glenn’s orbital mission and the moments of fear caused by the heat shield problems. As portrayed in the film these elements of fact-based drama don’t significantly advance the underlying story of the three women.

They do reinforce awareness that they were there and they played a part in a major historical event. That’s important.

It’s good that this movie recovers and promotes the history and accomplishments of these women. As we leave the theater we are also left with the realization that there was a time not so very long ago here in the United States when there were “colored only” restrooms, “colored only” water fountains, and “colored only” public library book collections. The struggle continues.

For aNewDomain, I’m Dennis D. McDonald.
An earlier version of this post ran on Dennis D. McDonald’s DDMCD blog. Find it here.

Here’s the official trailer for Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.

Cover and inset image:, All Rights Reserved.