The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or simply NASA, is an American space agency having genius employees and researchers working day and night for its growth. And Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fictional book Hidden Figures, published in 2016, is an ode to the life of one of those workers.
This loosely inspired the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures by Theodore Melfi. Hidden Figures was a commercial success. It grossed $236 million worldwide against its $25 million production budget. But is Hidden Figures really a true story or just an excerpt with modifications?
Well, Hidden Figures features three African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. And the movie surrounds their life and the dramatic incidents that happened during the 1930s through the 1960s. In this article, we will wander through the film and the facts surrounding the movie and find out the answer to our question if Hidden Figures is based on a true story or not. So let us begin.
About Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures is an American biographical drama about three African American female mathematicians, Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. It is based on Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Theodore Melfi is its director and a co-writer with Allison Schroeder.
Critically acclaimed Hidden Figures was released by 20th Century Fox on January 6, 2017. The performances, writing, direction, cinematography, emotional tone, and historical accuracy were highly appreciated by the critics. It was a commercial hit and made a net profit of $95.5 million, making it one of the most profitable releases of 2016.
The star Cast
The lead mathematicians in the movie are played by Taraji P. Henson (as Katherine Goble Johnson), Octavia Spencer (as Dorothy Vaughan), and Janelle Monáe (as Mary Jackson).
Other stars include Kevin Costner (as the director of the Space Task Group Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (as supervisor Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (as the head engineer in STG, Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Katherine’s love interest, Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (as Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (as an astronaut, John Glenn).
The movie is set in 1961 when Katherine Johnson works with her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Because of Katherine’s expertise in analytic geometry, White supervisor Vivian Mitchell sends her to assist Al Harrison’s Space Task Group. She becomes the first Black woman on the team. However, she faces racism as colored bathroom signs and segregated departments for blacks and whites. Also, head engineer Paul Stafford removes her name from reports with an excuse of faulty computers and takes up the credits for the work done by Katherine.
Mary applies for a NASA engineer position but to gain additional qualifications for the post, she attends night classes at all-white Hampton High School. At this time, the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Yuri Gagarin increased the pressure on sending American astronauts into space.
Dorothy, the human computer, learns that NASA has installed an IBM 7090, a computer that will replace human computers. Therefore she decides to teach herself along with her West Area co-workers programming. She visits the computer room and starts the machine successfully. After this, she was promoted to supervise the Programming Department.
Katherine had a crucial role in John Glenn’s launch when electronic devices replaced human computers. She helps in correcting faulty calculations of IBM 7090 to launch the mission successfully. After a few obstacles, Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) makes a successful landing too.
In the end, Mary obtains her engineering degree. She becomes NASA’s first female African-American engineer. Dorothy continues as NASA’s first African-American supervisor. Katherine, as Stafford’s report co-author, calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions.
Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Also, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Center’s Katherine Johnson Computational Building in her honor in 2016.
Hidden Figures: a true story or a fictional one?
Although Hidden figures are loosely inspired by Lee Shetterly’s book, the screenplay does take some artistic liberties. The story revolves around the three mathematicians in NASA during the space race between the U.S. and Russia to put their first man in orbit.
Hidden Figures, as the name suggests, is more about behind the scenes of some high-profile events and institutes involving gender inequality and racism. The characters were the three mathematicians with John Glenn, Levi Jackson (Mary’s husband), and Jim Johnson. Karl Zelensky is Kazimierzm Czarnecki in real life. Vivian Mitchel and Paul Stafford are the fictional characters who support the discriminatory drama around the female protagonists.
Also, the ongoing space programs depicted in the movie were more of collective success rather than of the individuals. And the three ladies were though friends, but not like besties as shown in the movie.
So, eventually, we can say that Hidden Figures is a true story, but yes, it did take the liberty of fitting the drama using some fictional characters and modifying the story. It is available on Disney Hotstar.