HIDDEN FIGURES – in cinemas Friday, 17th February – uncovers the incredible, untold yet true story of a brilliant group of women who changed the foundations of the country for the better — by aiming for the stars. The film recounts the vital history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped win the all-out space race against America’s rivals in the Soviet Union and, at the same time, sent the quest for equal rights and opportunity rocketing forwards.
“Yes, they let women do some things at NASA….”
Everyone knows about the Apollo missions. We can all immediately list the bold male astronauts who took those first giant steps for humankind in space: John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. Yet, remarkably, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson‘s are names not taught in school or even known to most people — even though their daring, smarts and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to advances that allowed for human space flight.
At last, the story of a visionary trio of women who crossed gender, race and professional lines on their way to pioneering cosmic travel comes to the screen starring Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Benjamin Button, Hustle And Flow), Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (Allegiant, Fruitvale Station, The Help), singer Janelle Monae making her motion picture debut and two time Oscar winner Kevin Costner (Black Or White, Field Of Dreams, Dances With Wolves).
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) brings the women’s rise to the top ranks of aerospace in the thrilling early days of NASA to life via a fast-moving, humour-filled, inspiring entertainment that illuminates both the gutsy quest for Earth’s first, seemingly impossible orbital flight and also the powerful things that can result when women unite.
For all its joys and triumphs, HIDDEN FIGURES is also a film that takes place at the crossroads of the most defining struggles in American history: the evolving fight for Civil Rights; the battle to win the high-stakes Cold War without risking nuclear war and be the first superpower to establish a human presence outside planet Earth; and the ongoing drive to show how the mind-boggling technological breakthroughs that create the world’s future have nothing to do with gender or background.
Says Melfi: “This story takes place at the collision of the Cold War, the space race, the Jim Crow south, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. It is incredible territory for a rich and powerful story few people know about at all.”
Adds Taraji P. Henson: “Now we know there were amazing women behind how John Glenn came to orbit the earth in space — we finally get to hear their story.”
Touchingly, Katherine G. Johnson, now in her 90s, finds the growing fascination with her life’s work and that of her fellow compatriots a surprise as she says she was always just doing her best for her job, her family and her community, as she believes anybody would. “I was just solving problems that needed to be solved,” she says with characteristic modesty.
As for what she advises people facing challenges today, Johnson says: “Stick with it. No matter the problem, it can be solved. A woman can solve it — and a man can too, if you give him a lot of time.”
Joining Henson, Spencer, Monae and Costner is a cast that includes Mahershala Ali (Free State Of Jones, House Of Cards), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo, Spiderman, Mona Lisa Smile), Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory, The Normal Heart) and Kimberly Quinn (St. Vincent, Gypsy). Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.
ABOUT THE REAL LIFE CHARACTERS
KATHERINE JOHNSON (Played by Taraji P. Henson):
One of the brightest minds of her generation, mathematician, physicist and space scientist, Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. Displaying an early aptitude for math, she was brilliant with figures. Encouraged by her parents and teachers, Johnson attended West Virginia State College and graduated with highest honors.
She became the first African American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, when the state first integrated its graduate schools in 1930. Originally a teacher, Johnson was hired as a computer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1953. She was assigned to the Flight Research Division and became indispensable, doing calculations for orbital trajectories on the early Mercury flights. Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard, the first American in Space. Her math was instrumental to the success of the historic Friendship 7 Mission, in which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The early electronic IBM computer was essential to Glenn’s flight, but not reliable, so Glenn insisted that “the girl” (he meant Johnson) manually check the numbers before his flight. The successful flight, of course, marked a turning point in the Space Race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The stellar mathematician also worked on the calculations for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite.
Johnson has three daughters from her first marriage to James Goble, who died in 1956. Since 1959, she has been married to Colonel James Johnson. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
DOROTHY VAUGHAN (Played by Octavia Spencer):
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1910, Dorothy Vaughan was a gifted child who excelled academically and musically. Her family relocated to West Virginia when she was eight. Aged 15, Vaughan won a full scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. Married to Howard Vaughan, the mother of six was a schoolteacher before joining NASA’s Langley Research Center as a computer in the 40s. She was promoted to a management position and became NASA’s first black supervisor.
A fierce champion for her staff, Vaughan devoted herself to fighting for promotions and pay raises for both black and white women computers. With the introduction of the first electronic computers to NASA, Vaughan had the foresight to realize that the role of the human computer would vanish. Reinventing herself, she learned how to program the IBM, becoming proficient in Fortran (computer programing language). Vaughan also encouraged the women in her department to become computer programmers, in order to save their jobs. She joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan died in 2008.
MARY JACKSON (Played by Janelle Monae):
Born in Hampton Virginia in 1921, Mary Jackson graduated in math and physical science from Hampton Institute. Married to Levi Jackson Sr., the mother of two initially worked as teacher. A gifted mathematician, Jackson started her NASA career as a computer. Recognized for her excellent engineering skills, Jackson was encouraged by NASA engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki to enter a training program that would enable her to be promoted from mathematician to engineer.
Tenacious and courageous, she petitioned to be allowed into a segregated white high school, in order to take the college courses required for her to work officially as a NASA engineer. Winning her fight and completing her qualifications, Jackson went on to become NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer and is thought to be the first black female engineer in the United States. Deeply concerned about equality for women, later in her career, Jackson took a demotion to become a human resources manager. Among the honours she received was an Apollo Group Achievement Award. For three decades, Jackson was an enthusiastic Girl Scouts leader. She died in 2005.
HIDDEN FIGURES is in UK Cinemas from Friday, 17th February, 2017.