Top 10 Things Hidden Figures Got Factually Right & Wrong

Top 10 Things Hidden Figures Got Factually Right & Wrong

VOICE OVER: Emily - WatchMojo WRITTEN BY: Savannah Sher
There are a lot of things Hidden Figures got factually right and wrong. For this list, we'll be fact checking pivotal scenes and storylines from this 2016 drama. Our countdown includes the timeline, the police incident, Kevin Costner's character, and more!

Is it historically accurate or just Hollywood magic? Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Things Hidden Figures Got Factually Right and Wrong.

For this list, we’ll be fact checking pivotal scenes and storylines from this 2016 drama.

#10: The Timeline

We can’t fault them for this decision, because it made the movie move at a much more exciting pace, but the creators of the film condensed many years of history into quite a short timeline. The film kicks off in 1961 and takes place over the following two years. But in reality, Mary Jackson became the first black female engineer at NASA in 1958 and Dorothy Vaughan made history by becoming a supervisor more than a decade earlier, in 1949. All three of the women had many career successes earlier in history, including authoring research reports. In fact, the West and East Computer divisions didn’t exist by the end of the 1950’s.

#9: The Three Women's Closeness

This leads us to our next point. Because of the unrealistic timeline, the three main characters in the film, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, didn’t actually cross paths as much as in the film. And they definitely weren’t close friends who attended events for family milestones. This narrative change put the women together in a variety of scenarios where they actually wouldn’t have worked together frequently. Emphasizing their closeness in the film let them express themselves to other women who were in a similar situation to themselves . . . but it’s also not really true.

#8: The Police Incident

Considering the fact that the three women weren’t especially good friends, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t actually carpool into work together. In one memorable scene from the film, we see them having car trouble and being questioned by a police officer when they break down on the side of the road. When he learns that they work for NASA however, he changes his tune, and expresses respect for them. All of this is fiction, and in fact Katherine Johnson carpooled with her neighbor and fellow churchgoer, Eunice Smith.

#7: Katherine Being Told Women Aren’t Allowed in Briefings

In a memorable scene from the movie, Katherine asks for permission to attend a space program briefing. She’s told by head engineer Paul Stafford (played by Jim Parsons), that women don’t go to meetings like that one, and that there is “no protocol for it”. When she pushes harder, she’s eventually allowed to attend. This is how it happened in real life, and Katherine recalls asking if there was a law against women appearing at the briefings. When she found out there wasn’t, she managed to get her way.

#6: Kevin Costner's Character

In the film, Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group. But in reality, Harrison was not a real historical figure. The movie’s director wasn’t able to secure the rights to portray the real person he wanted to, so created a character who was a composite of three different NASA directors. Similarly, Jim Parsons’ character Paul Stafford wasn’t real, which is for the best considering his racist and sexist attitudes. Finally, the woman that Kirsten Dunst played, Vivian Mitchell, is also a fictional creation.

#5: Getting Rid of the Segregated Toilet

In one of the most satisfying moments in the movie, Kevin Costner’s character dramatically smashes the sign for the “colored ladies” bathroom. There are a few problems with this scene . . . First, Kevin Costner’s character didn’t exist; and second, segregation ended at Langley in 1958. Some critics argued that this created an unnecessary “white savior” moment. The movie’s screenwriter and director Theodore Melfi, countered that "There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing, and someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?” The critics weren’t impressed.

#4: Katherine Johnson Computing John Glenn's Trajectory

John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth made history in 1962, when he became the first American to do so. In the movie, we see Katherine working on Glenn’s trajectory, which was totally accurate. Perhaps more surprising though, is that when the IBM computer seemed to be giving them inconsistent numbers, Glenn really did ask for Johnson specifically to check the figures for him and said that he was willing to fly that day if she confirmed them. Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book “Hidden Figures”, said, "So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success."

#3: Katherine Running Half a Mile to Use the Bathroom

One of the main devices used to expose the racism of mid-20th century America was the fact that Katherine Johnson had to walk half a mile to another building in order to use the colored bathroom. But in fact, it was Mary Jackson who encountered this problem, not Johnson. Both had started at Langley before the NACA [pronounced N - A - C- A] became NASA, which saw segregated facilities abolished. However, Katherine actually hadn’t realized that the East Side bathrooms were segregated, and used the “white” bathroom for years. There was a complaint at one point, but she ignored it, and there were no consequences.

#2: Katherine's Experience with Workplace Racism

While in the movie, Katherine takes a stand against the segregation at NASA, the real Katherine has stated that racism didn’t affect her much in her workplace. When she spoke to WHRO-TV, she said, "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." Perhaps to reflect practices elsewhere, and to make the movie more dramatic, the film creators included it anyway.

#1: Segregation Laws at Langley

In 1943, when black women began working as “computers” at Virginia’s Langley campus, segregation was very real in the state. It was mandated that there be separate workspaces, cafeterias and bathrooms for black and white people. As “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly, describes it, "Even though they were just starting these brand new, very interesting jobs as professional mathematicians, they nonetheless had to abide by the state law.” The reality is though that segregation ended at the Langley Research Center when NASA was formed in 1958, which was before the movie takes place.
My only complaint with this article is that unlike in the movie, when Katherine was double-checking John Glenn's trajectory, she did it over several days, not two minutes.