A black woman in a plaid dress walks into a room full of white men in starched white shirts. She is Katherine Goble, a child prodigy who has been assigned to the Space Task Group at NASA owing to her skills at analytic geometry. In an ideal world, the first of these two sentences would be entirely irrelevant. But this is Virginia in the 1960s, so there you have it.
A bathroom break takes forty minutes because Katherine has to run ten blocks to a building that has a bathroom for colored women. When she helps herself to a mug of coffee from the coffee machine, there is a scandalized hush around the room. The next day, there is a separate coffee machine labeled colored kept on the same table. (When you see the two coffee machines, you realize why the term separate is not the same thing as equal.) Her immediate supervisor treats her with barely veiled contempt. Her name is redacted from every report she authors.
And yet, she is not cowed down. When the situation demands it, she speaks up. She goes around her immediate boss if need be, to ask for what she wants. She has a sympathetic boss-figure who recognizes her talent and has no time for petty nonsense, but the film is smart enough not to make it his crusade (one slightly shlocky scene involving bathroom signage notwithstanding).
Katherine is one of three women this film is about. There’s Mary Jackson, who needs to convince the court to desegregate night classes at a local high school so that she can eventually apply for an engineer trainee program (her conversation with the judge is a delight to watch). Then there’s Dorothy Vaughan, who supervises — in function, but not in title or pay — a group of computers, back when the term referred to people who did calculations by hand and calculating machines. Math doesn’t care about segregation, but organizations do, so African-American women computers had a separate division for themselves. (It is their bathroom that Katherine has to run all the way across the NASA compound to use.) Then NASA purchases an IBM mainframe machine. And when it does, Dorothy is among the first to realize what this represents, teaching herself and her subordinates FORTRAN so that they could write programs on the machine.
That these women face down, and surmount some pretty heavy odds is amazing in and as of itself. (In some cases, the opposition comes from white women as well, as in the case of Dorothy’s supervisor Vivian, with whom a late exchange about being treated equally is brief but incredibly loaded.) The beauty of this film is, it gives us a portrait of these vibrant, competent women who aren’t simply reduced to their struggle against a system that undervalues them at every turn. They lead full lives. You wonder if they wear their opposition down by sheer grace and force of will.
The incredible thing is how much wit and charm there is in the writing. The film opens with a shot of a car stranded on the road, with our three heroines in car. Well, Dorothy is underneath it, trying to fix it. A cop car pulls up. Our minds have been so conditioned by recent news items and old stories that we can feel ourselves clenching. But the women pull out their IDs and the surprised cop gives them an escort all the way to their workplace. “Three Negro women chasing a cop car on a highway in 1961. Now that’s a God ordained miracle,” exclaims Mary, the wiseass. The laugh comes so naturally, so explosively, you realize later that it’s because you’ve been holding your breath until then.
There is a moment late in Hidden Figures when Dorothy looks back at an empty room, on top of which is a signboard that says Colored Computers. Her facial features rearrange themselves into an ever-so-dismissive gesture that only an actress like Octavia Spencer can manage so wonderfully. The unspoken conversation between her and that signboard seems to be:
You can’t do that! <<That being, well, just about everything>>
Oh yeah? And who’s gonna stop me?