Being a woman in the workplace is a challenge. Being a black woman working at NASA in the 1960s is unprecedented. In Hidden Figures, three mathematicians fight for their right to work while facing systemic challenges to their intersectional identities as African-American women. They have to be the first and they have to be the best, or they could be out of a job. Simply “leaning in” is not a viable solution.

We meet our heroines by a stalled car on the side of a road in Virginia: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Katherine is a gifted mathematician who, at a very young age, taught her much older classmates and teacher how to solve complex math equations. Dorothy is a resourceful, natural leader while Mary has the talents of an engineer. Regardless of their impressive resumes, the white male police officer who arrives at the scene sees them as three black women potentially up to no good. The notion that they are mathematicians—or “computers”—at NASA is hard for the officer to process. But after seeing some identification, he quickly offers to escort them to Langley so they can get to work. The country’s space race obsession is more important than race-related issues, at least for that morning.

Racism, sexism and everyday microagressions are constant barriers to success for women of color in the workplace. Our math heroines are no exception. When Mary applies for an engineering position, her application is denied and she is told she should just be thankful to have a job. As Dorothy struggles to get a much-deserved promotion to supervisor, she takes consolation in the upward mobility of her colleagues. “Any upward movement is a movement for all of us,” she says. To represent your community is a blessing and a burden that only marginalized people experience.

Office politics aside, the race to beat the Russians is the topline on everyone’s agenda. Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group and her mission is to use her incisive powers of analytical geometry to send the first American man to space. As the first black woman to work at the STG, Kathryn stands out in a room of (one white woman and a whole lot of) white men in white shirts and skinny ties. Though her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is progressive, her counterparts are less amicable. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) treats Katherine like an entry-level assistant. Her knack for solving problems on the office chalkboard is a potential threat to his job security. As a privileged white man in midcentury America, Stafford doesn’t have the same intersectional burdens that Katherine faces. While he gets to go to meetings, she has to proof his work while using outdated, redacted material and drinking out of the “colored” coffee pot.

The film’s greatest assets are its leads and the powerful characters they portray. The screenplay, co-written by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, breaks down the struggles the women face while balancing their personal lives with professional ambitions, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the space age. Spencer is a dramatic veteran who plays Dorothy like that one co-worker we can’t help but respect and admire. Her uncomfortable clashes with Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell could serve as an employee guidebook to the differences between black and white feminism. We wish she was our boss. Fresh off a successful role in Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed Moonlight, Monáe brings a unique style and attitude to Mary, inevitably stealing almost every scene she is in. A powerful courtroom exchange proves the talented singer is also a promising actress.



Henson, who arguably gets the most screen time out of the three, brings a vulnerable ferocity to Katherine. These days, she is most known for playing the fiery Cookie Lyon on the Fox television show Empire. While Katherine is no Cookie, Henson brings glimpses of her into pivotal moments like in her first exchange with the dapper Colonel Johnson (Mahershala Ali). The chemistry between the two is electric.

Katherine, Dorothy and Mary face individual problems that highlight the larger struggles of the civil rights movement generally, and black women more specifically. There’s a key scene where Harrison asks Katherine why she’s almost always away from her desk when he needs her. She tells him the simple truth – she needs to relieve herself in the only “colored” bathroom on campus, half a mile away from their building. At this point, she’s had enough of the colored coffee pots, the double standards and the onerous trips to the ladies’ room. She lets it all out, reprimanding her colleagues for their inherent prejudice and discrimination. And when she’s done, she composes herself and goes to lunch. It’s a moment of pure, over-the-top drama infused with a bite of Cookie attitude. Katherine’s act of protest leads to a win for her community – a change in office bathroom policy, which, in turn, results in a change in office culture. Like Harrington says, “At NASA, everyone pees the same color.”



It would be a shame not to mention Costner’s endearing performance as the grumpy man with a good heart that is Al Harrington. His charisma adds to the feel-good nature of the film. But at the center of Hidden Figures lies the true story about what happens when black women get a seat at the table: they get things done, period. It’s an inspiring tale that becomes even more meaningful when, in the credits sequence, images of the actresses are swapped for black-and-white photographs of the real-life women they portrayed. Pictures of black women working at NASA alongside IBM supercomputers and male counterparts show a different, untold side of history. It reminds us that there are plenty of heroes out there we have yet to learn about, hidden figures we have yet to uncover.