Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson were brilliant women who used their mathematical abilities to help send rockets (manned and unmanned) into space.

Want to know more about them? Don’t watch the film, Hidden Figures.

Though Hidden Figures is an entertaining movie, it does what most bio-pics (biographical movies) do: warps time and truth for the sake of character development and plot.

The film is set in 1961 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. It shows a segregated department (the West Area Computing unit), in which black female mathematicians, including Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson, have to use separate dining and bathroom facilities.

The three women are depicted as close friends who ride to work together and attend each other’s family events. The truth is, the three were at most passing acquaintances, and the timeline of their lives is severely compressed to allow their stories to mesh.

At the time the film portrays, that is, 1961, segregation was no longer in effect at NASA. Dorothy Vaughan said in an interview later on that everyone was too busy doing research and solving aeronautic problems to allow race and gender to be an issue.


Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of the West Area Computing unit back in 1949, replacing a white supervisor who had died. In 1958, when NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) became NASA, segregated facilities were done away with.

The film depicts Katherine Johnson hurrying half a mile to use a colored restroom in the East Side facility and often being absent from her desk as a result. The scene is powerful and moving, but it’s simply not true. Yes, there was a restroom for blacks on the East Side, but Johnson didn’t go there. She used a nearby white restroom. She did so for years before anyone complained. Johnson ignored the complaint, and nothing came of it.

The movie shows Mary Jackson having to get a court order to attend night classes held at an all-white high school. In reality, she simply asked the city of Hampton for an exception, which was granted.

The Task Force Group was led by a man named Robert Gilruth. In the film, he is a fictional character named Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner). Harrison knocks a Colored Ladies Room sign off the wall, dramatically signifying that the place was no longer segregated.

This incident is fictional. So is the scene where Harrison lets Katherine Johnson into Mission Control to witness the launch of John Glenn’s flight. This would be difficult, as the Langley facility was in Virginia and Mission Control was in Florida.

One review said that the film is only about 74 percent accurate in its depiction of events. No computer, human or otherwise, is needed to mark the trajectory of my hand as it palms my face.

Want to learn more about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson? Read Margot Shetterly’s excellent book, Hidden Figures. Only then, if you must, watch the movie.

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