REVIEW: ‘Hidden Figures’

City College hosts a film screening and discussion of the biographical drama about three Black women who helped NASA put an astronaut in orbit

Three Black women from the film Hidden Figures are shown celebrating

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. The three NASA mathematicians broke barriers of gender and race during the 1960s, helping catapult the first American into earth’s orbit. Photo by Hopper Stone, SMPSP/Twentieth Century Fox

Kathy Archibald, Multimedia Journalist

The World Cultures program at San Diego City College will present a community Zoom viewing and discussion of the film “Hidden Figures” on Feb. 17 – a day earlier than most Black Film Friday events due to the holiday weekend.

The riveting two-hour drama directed by Theodore Melfi is based on the true story of three brilliant, Black, female mathematicians who worked as human “computers” for NASA. It highlights the excitement and pressures of the space race amid the sexism and Jim Crow segregation laws of 1960s Virginia.

The moving story centers around Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) and her critical role in John Glenn’s historic flight as the first American to orbit the earth. 

Loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same name, the movie takes poetic license with dramatic effect, yet in some cases diminishes Johnson’s determination – for example by depicting Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison as the driving force behind ending the practice of separate “colored” bathrooms at NASA.

In fact, it was Johnson herself who ignored the prohibitions and used the white women’s bathroom, according to her 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Perhaps the film’s interpretation of events occurring only 60 years ago is a lingering effect of the prejudices depicted still echoing today. 

In a 2011 interview with WHRO public media, Johnson said she didn’t necessarily notice the effects of segregation at the time as she was fully immersed in it. 

“You lived with it,” she said.

“Hidden Figures” makes up for its occasional historical inaccuracies by grasping the essence of the time and receiving the blessing of the protagonist.

The film also intertwines the compelling stories of fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, respectively) revealing the camaraderie, humor and multidimensional injustices experienced by Black women in America during the civil rights movement.

The Zoom event, sponsored by the Black Studies Department, City Scholars, City Umoja Program, Diversity Committee, HUBU, and World Cultures will be held on Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. and can be accessed here.

For more information on Black History Month at City College and a list of events click here.