In 1961, mathematician Katherine Johnson works as a "computer" in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, alongside her colleagues, aspiring engineer Mary Jackson and unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.
Following a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. White supervisor Mrs Vivian Mitchell assigns her to assist the Space Task Group of Al Harrison. Katherine becomes the first "colored" (African-American) woman in the team—and in the building, which has no bathrooms for colored people.
Katherine's new colleagues are initially dismissive and demeaning, especially head engineer Paul Stafford. Meanwhile, Dorothy's request to be officially promoted to supervisor is rejected by Mrs Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule's heat shields, encouraging her to more assertively pursue an engineering degree.
At a barbecue, Katherine meets National Guard officer Jim Johnson and they are attracted to each other, but she is disappointed when he voices skepticism at women's mathematical abilities. He later apologizes and they ultimately get married.
Harrison invites his subordinates to solve a complex mathematical equation, and Katherine steps forward, leaving him impressed. The Mercury 7 astronauts visit Langley and astronaut John Glenn is cordial to the West Area Computers.
Over time, Katherine becomes better acquainted with her colleagues. Harrison becomes upset when she is not at her desk and she explains how far she has to walk to use the colored people's bathroom in another building. Harrison abolishes bathroom segregation, personally knocking down the Colored Bathroom sign. Despite Stafford's objections, he allows Katherine to be included in their meetings, in which she creates an elaborate equation to guide the space capsule into a safe re-entry. Despite this, Katherine is forced to remove her name from all the reports, which are credited solely to Stafford. Meanwhile, Mary goes to court and convinces the judge to grant her permission to attend night classes in an all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.
Dorothy learns of the impending installation of an IBM 7090 electronic computer that could replace her co-workers. She visits the computer room and successfully starts the machine. Later, she visits a public library, where the librarian scolds her for visiting the whites-only section, to borrow a book about FORTRAN. While congratulating Dorothy on her work, Mrs Mitchell assures her that she never treated her differently due to the color of her skin; Dorothy is unconvinced. After teaching herself FORTRAN and training her West Area co-workers, she is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department and the others are transferred there. Mrs Mitchell eventually addresses Dorothy as "Mrs Vaughan", indicating her new-found respect.
As the final arrangements for John Glenn's launch are made, Katherine is informed she is no longer needed at Space Task Group and is being reassigned back to West Area Computers. As a wedding and farewell gift from her colleagues, Harrison buys her a pearl necklace, the only jewelry allowed under the dress code.
Prior to the launch, however, discrepancies arise in the IBM 7090 calculations for the capsule's landing coordinates and Glenn requests that Katherine be called in to check the calculations. Katherine quickly does so and hurriedly delivers the results to the control room, only to have the door slammed in her face. However, Harrison brings her into the control room so they can relay the results to Glenn together.
After a successful launch, the space capsule has a warning light indicating a heat shield problem; mission control decides to land it after three orbits instead of seven. Katherine understands the situation and suggests that they should leave the retro-rocket attached to heat shield for reentry to which Harrison agrees immediately. Their instructions prove correct and Friendship 7 successfully lands in the ocean.
Following the mission, the mathematicians are laid off and ultimately replaced by electronic computers. Katherine is reassigned to the Analysis and Computation Division, Dorothy continues to supervise the Programming Department, and Mary obtains her engineering degree.
An epilogue reveals that Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.
In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a new 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was renamed the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor the following year., when NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers transferred to the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group.
Mary Jackson was the one who had to find her own way to a colored bathroom, which did exist on the East Side. Katherine (then Goble) was originally unaware that the East Side bathrooms were segregated, and used the unlabeled "whites-only" bathrooms for years before anyone complained. She ignored the complaint, and the issue was dropped. In an interview with WHRO-TV, Katherine Johnson played down the feeling of segregation. "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job...and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."
Mary Jackson did not have to get a court order to attend night classes at the whites-only high school. She asked the city of Hampton for an exception, and it was granted. The school turned out to be run down and dilapidated, a hidden cost of running two parallel school systems. She completed her engineering courses and earned a promotion to engineer in 1958.
Katherine Goble/Johnson carpooled with one Eunice Smith, a nine-year West End computer veteran at the time Katherine joined NACA. Smith was her neighbor and friend from sorority and church choir.
The three Goble children were teenagers at the time of Katherine's marriage to Jim Johnson.
Katherine Goble/Johnson was assigned to the Flight Research Division in 1953, a move that soon became permanent. When the Space Task Group was formed in 1958, engineers from the Flight Research Division formed the core of the Group and Katherine moved along with them. She coauthored a research report in 1960, the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.
Katherine gained access to editorial meetings as of 1958 simply through persistence, not because one particular meeting was critical.
The Space Task Group was led by Robert Gilruth, not Al Harrison, who was created to simplify a more complex management structure. In particular, the scene where Harrison smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign never happened, as in real life Katherine refused to use the colored bathroom and, in her words, "just went to the White one".
Vivian Mitchell and Paul Stafford are composites of several team members reflecting common social views and attitudes of the time. Karl Zielinski is based on Mary Jackson's mentor Kazimierz "Kaz" Czarnecki.
John Glenn, who was much older than depicted at the time of launch, did ask specifically for Johnson to verify the IBM calculations, although she had several days before the launch date to complete the process.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly agrees that there are differences between her book and the movie but finds that to be understandable.
"For better or for worse, there is history, there is the book and then there's the movie. Timelines had to be conflated and [there were] composite characters, and for most people [who have seen the movie] have already taken that as the literal fact. ... You might get the indication in the movie that these were the only people doing those jobs, when in reality we know they worked in teams, and those teams had other teams. There were sections, branches, divisions, and they all went up to a director. There were so many people required to make this happen. ... It would be great for people to understand that there were so many more people. Even though Katherine Johnson, in this role, was a hero, there were so many others that were required to do other kinds of tests and checks to make [Glenn's] mission come to fruition. But I understand you can't make a movie with 300 characters. It is simply not possible."
On July 9, 2015, it was announced that producer Donna Gigliotti acquired Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction book Hidden Figures about a group of black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the Space Race. Allison Schroeder wrote the script, which was developed by Gigliotti through Levantine Films. Schroeder grew up by Cape Canaveral, her grandparents worked at NASA, and she interned at NASA as a teenager and as a result saw the project as a perfect fit for her. Levantine Films produced the film with Peter Chernin's Chernin Entertainment. Fox 2000 Pictures acquired the film rights, while Theodore Melfi signed on to direct it. After coming aboard, Melfi revised Schroeder's script, and in particular focused on balancing the home lives of the three protagonists with their careers at NASA. Since the film's development was announced, various actresses were considered to play the black female roles, including Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson.
On February 10, 2016, Fox hired Henson to play the lead role of mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson. Producers would be Chernin and Jenno Topping, along with Gigliotti and Melfi. On February 17, Spencer was selected to play Dorothy Vaughan, one of the three lead mathematicians at NASA. On March 1, 2016, Kevin Costner was cast in the film to play the head of the space program. Singer Janelle Monáe signed on to play the third lead mathematician, Mary Jackson. Later the same month, Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell, and Mahershala Ali were cast in the film: Powell to play astronaut John Glenn, and Ali as Johnson's love interest, with Dunst for an unspecified role.
Principal photography began in March 2016. On April 1, 2016, Jim Parsons was cast in the film to play the head engineer of the Space Task Group at NASA, Paul Stafford. In April 2016, Pharrell Williams came on board as a producer on the film. He also would write original songs and would handle the music department and soundtrack of the film with Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch.
The film, set at NASA in 1961, depicts segregated facilities such as the West Area Computing unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. However, in reality, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of West Computing in 1949, becoming the first black supervisor at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and one of the few female supervisors. In Principal photography on the film began in early March 2016 on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Filming also took place at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
The film had a limited release starting on December 25, 2016, before a wide release on January 6, 2017.
As of March 9, 2017, Hidden Figures has grossed $160.1 million in the United States and Canada and $37.1 million in other territories for a worldwide gross of $196.2 million, against a production budget of $25 million.
During its limited release in 25 theaters from December 25, 2016, to January 5, 2017, the film grossed $3 million. In North America, Hidden Figures had its expansion alongside Underworld: Blood Wars and the wide releases of Lion and A Monster Calls. It was expected to gross around $20 million from 2,471 theaters in its opening weekend, with the studio projecting a more conservative $15–17 million debut. It made $1.2 million from Thursday night previews and $7.6 million on its first day. Initially, projections had the film grossing $21.8 million in its opening weekend, finishing second behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($22 million). Final figures revealed the film tallied a weekend total of $22.8 million, beating Rogue One's $21.9 million. In its second weekend the film grossed $20.5 million (a four-day MLK Weekend total of $27.5 million), again topping the box office.
Hidden Figures received positive reviews from critics. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 92% based on 224 reviews, with a weighted average score of 7.5/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "In heartwarming, crowd-pleasing fashion, Hidden Figures celebrates overlooked – and crucial – contributions from a pivotal moment in American history." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 74 out of 100, based on 47 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale, one of fewer than 60 films in the history of the service to receive such a score.
Simon Thompson of IGN gave the film a score of 9/10, saying, "Hidden Figures fills in an all too forgotten, or simply too widely unknown, blank in US history in a classy, engaging, entertaining and hugely fulfilling way. Superb performances across the board and a fascinating story alone make Hidden Figures a solid, an accomplished and deftly executed movie that entertains, engages and earns your time, money and attention." Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote, "the film’s made with more heart than art and more skill than subtlety, and it works primarily because of the women that it portrays and the actresses who portray them. Best of all, you come out of the movie knowing who Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are, and so do your daughters and sons."
Clayton Davis, of Awards Circuit gave the film 3.5 stars saying, "Precisely marketed as terrific adult entertainment for the Christmas season, Hidden Figures is a faithful and truly beautiful portrait of our country’s consistent gloss over the racial tensions that have divided and continue to plague the fabric our existence. Lavishly engaging from start to finish, Hidden Figures may be able to catch the most inopportune movie-goer off guard and cause them to fall for its undeniable and classic storytelling. The film is not to be missed."
In an interview, Katherine Johnson offered the following comment about the movie. "It was well-done. The three leading ladies did an excellent job portraying us."
After Hidden Figures was released on December 25, 2016, certain charities, institutions and independent businesses who regard the film as relevant to the cause of improving youth awareness in education and careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field, have organized free screenings of the film in order to spread the message of the film's subject matter. A collaborative effort between Western New York STEM Hub, AT&T and the Girl Scouts of the USA will allow more than 200 Buffalo Public School students, Girls Scouts and teachers to see the film. WBFO's Senior Reporter Eileen Buckley says the event is designed to help encourage a new generation of women to consider STEM careers. Research indicates that by the year 2020, there will be 2.4-millon unfilled STEM jobs.
Also, the film's principal actors (Henson, Spencer, Monáe and Parsons), director (Melfi), producer/musical creator (Williams), and other non-profit outside groups have offered free screenings to Hidden Figures at several cinema locations around the world. Some of the screenings are open to all-comers, while others have been arranged to benefit girls, women and the underprivileged. The campaign began as an individual bit of activism by Spencer, and has now made a total of more than 1,500 seats for Hidden Figures available, free of charge, to poor individuals and families. The end result was seven more screenings for people who otherwise might not have been able to afford to see the 20th Century Fox film - in Atlanta (sponsored by Monae), in Washington DC (sponsored by Henson), in Chicago (also Henson), in Houston (by Parsons), in Hazelwood, Missouri (by Melfi and actress/co-producer Kimberly Quinn), in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia (both sponsored by Williams).
In February 2017, AMC Theatres and 21st Century Fox announced that free screenings to Hidden Figures will take place in celebration of Black History Month in up to 14 select U.S. cities (including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami). The statement says the February charity screenings are to build broader awareness of the film's true story of the African American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. 21st Century Fox and AMC Theatres have also invited schools, community groups and non-profit organizations to apply for additional special screenings to be held in their towns. "As we celebrate Black History Month and look ahead to Women's History Month in March, this story of empowerment and perseverance is more relevant than ever," said Liba Rubenstein, 21st Century Fox's Senior Vice President of Social Impact, "We at 21CF were inspired by the grassroots movement to bring this film to audiences that wouldn't otherwise be able to see it - audiences that might include future innovators and barrier-breakers - and we wanted to support and extend that movement".
More recently, philanthropic non-profit outside groups and other local efforts by individuals have offered free screenings to Hidden Figures by using crowdfunding platforms on the Internet that allow people to raise money for free film screening events. Dozens of other GoFundMe free screening campaigns have popped up since the film's general release, all by people wanting to raise money to pay for students to see the film.
Following the 2017 Lego Ideas Contest, comes the announcement by Denmark-based toy maker The Lego Group it will manufacture a fan-designed Women of NASA figurine set of five female scientists, engineers and astronauts, as based on real women who have worked for the NASA Space Agency. The new minifigures are to honor the life-stories of African-American NASA scientists as represented in the acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. The five piece Women of NASA set includes, mathematician Katherine Johnson; computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; astronaut, physicist and educator Sally Ride; astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; and astronaut and physician Mae Jemison. The Women of NASA set would be available by late 2017 or early 2018.