HIDDEN FIGURES: Oscar-inspired Life Lessons in Character

Some people approach life by going all-in on their strengths — all time, money, energy, and other resources are directed toward that one thing they’re good at. In doing so, that strength becomes a superpower, an unmistakable class of its own.

That is most certainly the case for Katherine Johnson and her friends and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe respectively, in Hidden Figures.

Katherine’s remarkable pioneering legacy in mathematics began with her brilliance and unrelenting curiosity in the subject as a child. With the help of her parents, she advanced from school to school, had a great mentor — the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics, married and had three girls, and was hired by NASA — all by age 35.

Katherine’s calculations led to the successful flight of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, and this flight marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space. She earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped trailblaze the use of computers to perform the tasks during her three decades at NASA.

Katherine’s work was remarkable, and she was in great company. Colleagues, women of color both in and outside of this film, made tremendous strides in math and science during this time.

Character Drives Story; Strengths Drive Character

We take different things from different films at different times. Sometimes they’re big-picture ideas, sometimes it’s an attitude, decision, movement or smaller lesson.

This film and its leading ladies embody the idea of what’s possible when we zero in on our strengths with such determination and curiosity to see how far we can go. The allyship and camaraderie of the three ladies in this story is an important component for their mindset, ongoing action and success. And while mathematics is their external, visible, quantifiable strength, they each also hold a heavy dose of patience, resilience, diplomacy and fortitude to have persevered in the tense and unwelcoming environment.

“Despite what you may think, I have nothing against you,” Kirsten Dunst’s character Vivian Mitchell, tells Dorothy Vaughan.

“I believe you believe that,” Dorothy gently says back.

Diplomacy and patience — in spades. And an invitation to think about our choices and how to do better.

Reality Check: Smashing the “Colored Bathroom” Sign

Katherine’s boss Al Harrison may have been a supporter of her role at NASA in many ways, but the scene of him smashing the “colored bathroom” sign about half way through the movie? Didn’t happen in real life.

In real life, “Katherine refused to walk the extra distance to use the colored bathroom and, in her words, ‘just went to the White one.’” A heroine makes her own choices.

Despite this “narrative liberty”, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Johnson offered the following comment about the movie: “It was well-done. The three leading ladies did an excellent job portraying us.”

I wonder what it’s like to receive a standing ovation for the story of your bravery and badassery of your life. Katherine got to find out. When she appeared at the 89th Academy awards with actress Taraji B. Henson, Katherine received a standing ovation from the audience. It was one of many recognitions and honors she received in her career.

Gold Props

The wonderful team that brought us Hidden Figures received three Academy Award nominations: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Adapted Screenplay (Allison Shroeder and Theodore Melfi) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer).

The film was made for an estimated $25 million and achieved a cumulative worldwide gross of $236 million, according to IMDB.

The Hollywood Approach

The concepts are, in part, an excerpt from the book, The Hollywood Approach by Kristina Paider.

Kristina Paider is a world-class story consultant, development editor and marketer. As a story analyst in Hollywood, she analyzed tens of thousands of scenes and thousands of characters to assess what makes them tick. She is an expert at helping people and companies tell better stories and identify the ultimate needle-movers to success.

Connect or learn about her masterclass at www.kristinapaider.com or find her book here.

Hidden Figures is a 2016 film directed by Theodore Melfi. It was produced by 20th Century Fox and shot in Los Angeles. Photos: MovieStillsDB



Kristina Paider is a world-class marketer and storyteller. Her platform, The Hollywood Approach, helps people accelerate results in their business and life.

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Kristina Paider

Kristina Paider is a world-class marketer and storyteller. Her platform, The Hollywood Approach, helps people accelerate results in their business and life.