A Mind Doesn’t Have a Color

Ananya VermaOctober 24, 2023Now and ThenMedia

The world has witnessed the journeys of many people who faced oppression, prejudice, and humiliation and had their dreams turn to ashes.

We have also seen some others, who overcame all hurdles and soared successfully to the stars with their brilliance. Set at the dawn of the American Civil Rights movement, Hidden Figures reveals the tale of women mathematicians employed at the space program. Whether by running half a mile to the other side of Langley just to use the restroom or attending classes in a room full of white men, the central characters sparkle like three diamonds in the rough who outdo themselves time and time again, setting new milestones for others to follow.

Hidden Figures is a biographical movie directed by Theodore Melfi and inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The movie unravels the legacy of three African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during a time when workplaces were segregated on the basis of gender and race. This movie narrates the untold story of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and how their role was instrumental in the success of NASA’s early space program.

It all started in 1961, amidst the Cold War and the Space Race between the United States and erstwhile Soviet Union. The protagonist, Katherine Goble Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a very gifted mathematician in the Space Task Group. Whether it is calculating the growth trajectories of the capsule or locating the exact coordinates of the landing zone (without modern-day computers), Katherine’s work is nothing short of pure excellence. She wants to be recognized for her efforts, yet she is constantly undermined and humiliated in an all-white team. Katherine shows great determination and perseverance throughout her journey. I admire her character, poise, and resilience. She never backs down in the face of discrimination and lets her extraordinary work speak for itself.

Dorothy Vaughan is played by Octavia Spencer. The tale of Dorothy Vaughan is not just about securing victory, but also about being the rising tide that lifts all boats. It is about succeeding and ensuring no one is left behind. To my mind she is a visionary leader. Dorothy fights for her own voice to be heard and counted but also for the colored staff she supervises. She declines a promotion unless her team (which she has trained and prepared) can come with her. It is said fortune favors the brave. Dorothy is successful in her endeavors. Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams give an amazing backing track to complement one of the most iconic scenes of the film, where Dorothy triumphantly marches with her team from the West Area to the IBM room.

Hidden Figures also showcases the story of another warrior, Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. She aspires to be an aeronautical engineer after being assigned to the heat shield team and realizing her potential. She applies to Hampton High School and is denied admission, but she is determined not to let her racial identity become an obstacle toward her goal. One of my favorite dialogues in the film is when she says to the Judge, “I, Sir, plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking classes at that all-white high school. And I can’t change the color of my skin. So, I have no choice but to be the first.”

This movie is a true cinematic gem and one of cinematographer Mandy Walker’s most beautiful illustrations. For such a story to be compelling and powerful, it has to be brought out with perfection, capturing the essence of the ‘60s with style. From the wardrobe design to the color palette used for the sets, everything is authentic and well researched. From the camera angles used in the opening scene where Dorothy is seen sliding under a car to repair it, to the climax scene when Katherine is atop the ladder calculating the coordinates, there is a transition showing how these women earned their respect and achieved parity at their workplace. It’s remarkable how the cinematographer always frames Katherine as a sole colored pearl in the ocean of white men in their white shirts at the NASA Space Task Group, where she bedazzles everybody with her keen mathematical acumen.

The movie also has a masterpiece of a soundtrack. In each scene, the musical effects complement the characters’ experiences and capture their emotions. The tracks also have a subtle cultural reference when Pharell infuses the music with elements of jazz, gospel, and R&B. The soundtrack, featuring soulful melodies and spirited rhythms, are harmonious with the uplifting and inspirational story. The music reveals the characters' determination to overcome adversity, achieve their own dreams, and fulfill the resolve and pride of the American people in conquering space, thus resonating with viewers on a profound personal level. Throughout the story, the music plays a pivotal role - bridging the gap between the historical times and their relevance in today’s world.

Hidden Figures is truly an inspiring movie and a tribute to these three women mathematicians who became an inspiration to generations of girls to find their roots in the field of STEM learning. I give it a full five-star rating. If you want to find out how a simple segregated coffee pot could symbolize the story of the contributions of three colored women in sending a white man all the way to space and back, put on your space helmet and watch this amazing movie!

Ananya Verma is a 14-year-old from India. She loves to write and express herself through stories and poems. She also composes songs.