Rediscovering the Past: Hidden Figures

By Nathalie Del Valle

Hidden Figures, based on the true stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, brings forth the hardships of three black women working for NASA. Being the first African-American women to reach their respective achievements, they faced many challenges.

Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were one of the main contributors of the flights of astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Johnson also was a contributor to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Many of the men involved in such projects took these women for granted and they had to fight to make themselves–the hidden figures–known.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji Henson) is a mathematician, who at the beginning of the movie, works at West Area Computers, a segregated area in Langley Research Center, located in Hampton, Virginia. Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) is an aspiring engineer and mathematician who works alongside Johnson.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) supervised the team of girls that worked as “computers” at West Area Computers. Vaughan performed the role of supervisor as the former one was unavailable but was not recognized as such because of her race.

As the pressure of sending American astronauts to space before Russia grows, Johnson is assigned to help the Space Task Force by her supervisor, white Vivian Michael; Johnson became the first African-American woman to work in that division.

Despite the honor, Johnson is met with social difficulties. She is not allowed to use the restrooms in the building, use the same coffee pot as the rest of her co-workers or even wear jewelry.

At the same time Jackson is also promoted and assigned to aid in the testing of the rocket designed to fly into space under the direction of engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. At first, she does not consider becoming an engineer, deeming the idea impossible due to her race but eventually gives in to her dream. She relentlessly strives to be admitted into an engineering class at Hampton High School, a requirement she needed to become an engineer.

Vaughan would go on to be successful in computer programming and teach the women who worked at the West Area Computers the new coding program that would replace them and their jobs.

The movie leaves inspiration instilled in its audience. Both the women and men who watch it could be motivated by the way these three women surpassed the many obstacles that stood in the way of their dreams.

Entering the month of February—Black History Month—this movie reminds the public of the struggles African-Americans face. The movie addresses issues of racism and segregation, issues that continue to resound in modern society.

The story accrediting these three women was finally released to the world in 2016, forty-seven years after Vaughan became the first African-American female supervisor,  Johnson became the first African-American woman to become part of Special Task Group, and Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer.

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