Editor Roundtable: Hidden Figures

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Back for Season 2, the Roundtablers lift off into the Performance genre this week with the 2015 Oscar nominee Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three remarkable African-American women and their real-life achievements in the face of racism and mysoginy at NASA. The screenplay is by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

Click here for the Foolscap Global Story Grid.

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the documentary adapted from Wikipedia.

In 1961, mathematician Katherine Goble works as a human computer in the segregated division of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, alongside her colleagues, aspiring engineer Mary Jackson and their unofficial acting-supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.

Following the successful Soviet launch of Yuri Gagarin, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group, needs someone who can perform analytic geometry, and Katherine is the only one who can do it. She becomes the first black woman on that team. Katherine’s new colleagues initially dismiss her, especially head engineer Paul Stafford.

Dorothy is told she won’t be promoted to supervisor of the group of African American women computers (who do complex computations, not the machines) because there are no plans to assign a permanent supervisor for their group.

Mary is assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, and immediately identifies a flaw. With encouragement from the team leader, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor, she submits an application for an official NASA engineer position and begins to pursue an engineering degree.

Harrison invites his team to solve a complex mathematical equation, and Katherine develops the solution, leaving him impressed. The Mercury 7 astronauts visit Langley, and astronaut John Glenn makes a point of greeting the people supporting the mission, including the African American computers.

When Harrison finds out that Katherine is forced to walk a half mile to another building to use the bathroom, he becomes enraged and ends bathroom segregation by knocking down the “Colored Bathroom” sign and announcing “We all pee the same color.” Harrison allows Katherine to be included in the briefings, where she creates an equation to guide the space capsule during re-entry. Despite this, Katherine is forced to remove her name from 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 human computers. She visits the computer room to learn about it, 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. After teaching herself programming and training her co-workers, she is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department, but not before securing employment for 30 of her co-workers with her. 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 reassigned to her old group because the Task Force will rely on calculations from the IBM. Katherine’s colleagues give her a pearl necklace, the only jewelry allowed under the dress code and one that she doesn’t already have.

On the day of the launch, Harrison discovers discrepancies in the IBM 7090 calculations for the capsule’s landing coordinates, and Astronaut Glenn requests that Katherine be called in to check them. She quickly does so, only to have the door slammed in her face after delivering the results to the control room. However, Harrison gives her a security pass, so she can attend the liftoff. Stafford, showing a change of heart, brings Katherine a cup of coffee.

After a successful launch and orbit, the space capsule has a heat shield problem. Mission control decides to land it after three orbits instead of seven. Katherine suggests they leave the retro-rocket attached to heat shield for reentry. The instructions are effective, and Friendship 7 successfully lands.

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 and becomes NASA’s first African American aeronautical  engineer.

An epilogue reveals that Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The following year, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Center’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in her honor. Dorothy is NASA’s first African American supervisor and becomes a Fortran specialist and is described as one of the most brilliant minds at NASA.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

Read about the Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Performance (Professional)


Shawn Coyne describes the Performance Story as “an arch plot (Hero’s Journey) or mini-plot (slice of life) external genre that culminates in a big event when the protagonist is forced to display all their gifts under duress and society’s critical evaluation.”

The life value at stake is Honor and Shame.

The Performance Story includes three levels of conflict (inner, personal, and extra-personal). Click here and scroll down to learn more about the three levels of conflict.

The internal genre is Status-Admiration (a sympathetic protagonist with nobility of character and motive, along with a sophisticated worldview, encounters misfortune, they will rise in spite of it). Click here to learn more about the internal content genres.

Although this story takes place against the backdrop of the Friendship 7 launch for Project Mercury, the story focuses on the work and personal lives of three women in the NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. As a result it seems more like mini-plot than arch-plot.

Click here to learn more about the External Content Genres.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes for the Performance Genre


  • An inciting performance opportunity: The East Group of NASA’s Langley Research Center (white employees) need someone who can perform analytic geometry.
    • Katherine is assigned from West Group (African-American employees) because there’s no one qualified in East Group.
    • Mary is assigned to work on the Mercury 7 prototype.
    • Dorothy’s inciting performance opportunity took place a year prior when she began unofficially acting as the supervisor. When the film starts, she is being denied the opportunity to perform the role officially.
  • Protagonists sidestep responsibility to perform: This is the functional equivalent of the hero’s refusal of the call. In a story like Hidden Figures, where the protagonists are dealing with oppression on two levels (race and gender), the sidestepping takes on a deeper meaning.
    • Dorothy refuses to take the IBM assignment unless the rest of the women in the West Group can go with her.
    • Mary refuses to apply for an engineering training program (even though the engineering supervisor encourages her) because she knows that as a African-American woman, the opportunity is not truly available to her.
    • When Katherine is first assigned to Harrison’s group, she experiences self-doubt and wonders whether she can keep up. For a brief moment, she takes herself out of the game. 
  • Forced to perform, the Protagonists lash out:
    • Katherine yells at Harrison after he questions her about her absence. Katherine has been forced to run half a mile to the West Group to go to the bathroom because there are no “colored bathrooms” in the East Group buildings. (This marks the midpoint shift of the story)
    • Mary’s boss, Zielinski, encourages her to apply for the engineering program, and reminds her that he, too, is an underdog. When Mrs. Mitchell denies her application to the program on the grounds that Mary doesn’t have the appropriate extension courses, Mary lashes in the safety of her friends. She complains that society will never allow an African-American woman attend classes at an all-white school.  
    • Dorothy has been unofficially performing the duties of supervisor for the West Group of human computers for nearly a year. Mrs. Mitchell (as the voice of NASA) says the position won’t be filled on a permanent basis. When Dorothy drives home with her friends that evening, she vents to her friends because this is the only way she can lash out.  
  • Protagonist discovers and understands the Antagonist’s object of desire:
    • Katherine’s antagonist is Paul Stafford, who wants protocol followed to the letter and doesn’t want to be questioned.
    • Mary’s antagonist is essentially society, and most of the people in power want to maintain segregation. Mary can’t apply to the engineering program without additional education. She can’t get the additional education without the legal right to attend classes in a segregated school. 
    • Dorothy’s story is similar to Mary’s, and society is represented by Mrs. Mitchell and the librarian. 
  • Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the Antagonist fails:
    • Katherine includes her name and Paul Stafford’s in the Launch and Landing Projections report. Then, she asks for the opportunity to work on John Glenn’s trajectory. Stafford tears the cover from the projections report saying, “Computers don’t author reports.” 
    • Mary’s initial strategy was to apply for the engineering program. When that fails, she goes to court for the right to attend night classes at an all-white school.
    • Dorothy’s initial strategy is to apply for the supervisor position outright (this happened prior to the film opening). This fails when she realizes that NASA has no intention of filling the position permanently.
  • Protagonist, realizing she must change her approach to salvage some form of honor, reaches an All is Lost moment:
    • Katherine has been trying to get recognition for her work. Stafford won’t let her co-author papers, he won’t give her un-redacted documents. The data she’s working from is always out of date. So, she changes her approach and asks to attend the briefings in person. When Stafford refuses, she goes over his head and asks Harrison for permission.
    • Mary petitions the court so that she can attend the extension courses at the all-white high school.
    • Dorothy realizes that working within “the system” will never get her anywhere. So, she takes it upon herself to learn Fortran programming language, and teach the other computers, so they can keep their jobs programming the IBM.
  • The Big Event Scene: The central event of the Performance Story, when the Protagonist’s gift is expressed:
    • Katherine is called upon to verify the math for Glenn’s go/no go decision on the day of the launch. She calculates the landing with more accuracy and decimal places, than the IBM.
    • Mary doesn’t have a big event scene in terms of her engineering work at NASA. However, the core event of her story is when she shows up at the all-white school and begins taking classes.
    • Dorothy and her team are called upon to program the IBM when “the IBM man” is unable to.
  • Protagonist is rewarded at one or more levels of satisfaction – external, interpersonal or internal:
    • Katherine – External – in 2016, NASA dedicated a building to her and at the age of 97 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Interpersonal – Glenn, Harrison and Stafford all recognize her ability. Katherine is invited to work as part of the Apollo II mission (and the Space Shuttle). Stafford gets her coffee and recognizes that her name should be on the reports; Internal – pride in personal achievement, but also a happy marriage that, as of 2016, had lasted 56 years.
      Mary – External – Mary is requested by name for the Engineering department AND a Virginia judge recognizes her cause and gives her permission to attend night classes at a segregated high school; Interpersonal – Mary’s husband recognizes the validity of her dreams, and her ability to achieve those dreams AND she is eventually hired by NASA as an aeronautical engineer; Internal – personal achievement of getting the engineering job, but also (as Langley’s Women’s Program Manager) continuing to fight for the advancement of women of all colours.
    • Dorothy – External – the powers that be at NASA hire Dorothy as the permanent supervisor for the IBM Computing Lab and she is regarded as one of the most brilliant minds at NASA; Interpersonal – Mrs. Mitchell finally shows her respect by referring to her as Mrs. Vaughn, rather than Dorothy AND she is eventually supervising white computers who want to join the IBM team;  Internal – Dorothy not only gets herself a promotion and a permanent position, but she’s been able to ensure that the rest of the women in the West Group have permanent positions in the IBM Computing Lab. This is a personal victory for her.

Additional Comments

Leslie: I see Katherine’s initial strategy as one of keeping her head down, doing the work, and not complaining. At first, she doesn’t to complain to Harrison about Stafford’s treatment, not having the information she needs to do her job, or the long treks to the bathroom. This strategy fails when Harrison yells at her for being gone. At that point, she begins speaking up for herself. Notice that, as Status-Admiration protagonist, she complains only once her colleague’s behavior and the conditions she has to deal with interfere with the work. She doesn’t complain for her own comfort.

Click here to learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions for a Big Idea Nonfiction book.

Conventions for the Performance Genre


  • Training. Protagonist must practice to gain or recover the skills necessary to perform.
    • Katherine: In order to solve the go/no-go orbit conversion problem, she returns to “old math,” Euler’s Method, something no one else thought to do.
    • Dorothy: In order to learn how to program the IBM computer, gets the book on Fortran from the library, then teaches herself and the other computers in the West Group.
    • Mary: In order to become an engineer, she must take night classes at the all-white high school, but first must file a petition with the court to attend the segregated school.
  • The explicit All is Lost Moment. Protagonist must understand that there is no getting around their imminent failure.
  • The Mentor recovers moral compass or betrays the Protagonist to act out perceived victimhood.
    • Katherine: Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) shows a growing moral compass several times (bathroom sign, coffee pot, briefing, launch room)
    • Dorothy: Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) respectfully addresses her as Mrs. Vaughn
    • Mary: her husband changes his tune about supporting attending night classes and chasing her dreams.
  • The power divide between Antagonist and Protagonist is wide and deep.
  • Without a doubt. This pulls on the society-historical landscape, where they face both the race and gender divide. As black woman, they had the lowest rank of power in society.
  • Ironic, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending:

They won respect of their colleagues and achieved their career goals at NASA but they still live in a world that is racist and sexist—they won the battle but not the war.

Several genres have the convention of the ironic ending. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way, though the heavy toll negates a true sense of achievement or profit. A gambit is a calculated loss in exchange for a greater advantage.

Examples in the Performance Genre:

  • Rocky: Rocky loses the match but he went fifteen rounds (something no one else was able to do) and gains respect. So he loses the match but wins esteem.
  • Cool Runnings: Due to their old sled, the Jamaican bobsled team crashes just meters before the finish line, but they rise, lift their sled over their shoulders, and walk over the finish line to cheers and applause. Again, lose the race but gain respect.
  • Karate Kid: Daniel wins the match (using the one footed Crane move) but has been badly injured and leaves the mat with help from others. He gives up safety of his body for success and esteem.

Additional Comments

Valerie: Mary’s mentor is her supervisor (Zielinksi)

Anne: Kim mentioned the Pyrrhic victory. That can be a win-but-lose ending in the War genre too–a negation of the negation. War and Performance are be very closely related, especially when Performance stories involve team sports and a culminating event that’s like a battle between two sides. Victory, honor, and esteem versus defeat, dishonor and shame are at play in both genres. In Season One, Episode Six, we examined the War genre with A Midnight Clear, which culminated in a meaningless and ironic victory in a pointless battle, and the surviving soldiers traumatized.

Leslie: The win but lose/lose but win convention occurs in every genre “north” of the security tank (e.g., Proof of Love scene in Love story). To gain connection, love, esteem, actualization, or transcendence, the character must give up something else on the pyramid they are extremely reluctant to give up. It must be a hard and significant choice.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?


Hidden Figures uses a distinctly third-person POV with varying narrative distance that includes close-ups along with newsreels and reports (often in hte role of herald, which is particularly powerful during the Big Event sequence).

Narrative Drive: We know how it ends (at least as far as the mission is concerned–dramatic irony), but that doesn’t change the suspense we feel before and during the Big Event.

The Big Event sequence pacing is done so well with intense moments of watching the capsule burning on re-entry to the speechless crowd watching TV outside a store and from the control room, where we can tell they feel deep anxiety but have to put on a brave face for Glenn, to the news announcers who tell it like it is (heralds).

Check out these posts to learn more about Point of View and Narrative Devices.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?


Wants: All three women want to be respected for their work by colleagues, partners, and community.

Needs: Do excellent work and speak up when the work is compromised.

In an environment like NASA, where performance is vital to the mission and fools are not suffered (too much), doing excellent work, speaking up when work is compromised, and enduring hardships that are unrelated to performance seem to be the path to earning respect. For example, Katherine doesn’t create a work-around for the redacted figures (and her lack of adequate security clearance) until she realizes she can’t do the work without them. Every challenge (e.g., bathroom, security clearance, attending the briefings) is directly or indirectly related to her ability to do her best work. In this way, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary prove that they are committed to the unit’s mission, and therefore earn respect, even from the doubting Thomases.

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?


The typical Controlling Idea/Theme for a Performance story that ends positively is: We gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally.

For this story specifically, I’ve identified this one:

Professional women of color gain the respect of their colleagues and community (and keep their self-respect) when they commit to doing excellent work and speaking up when the work is compromised.

Other great motifs related to the Controlling Idea/Theme include the following:
The African-American women are being told to settle in many ways (e.g., sit at the back of the bus, different water fountains and restrooms, Mrs. Mitchell: “Be thankful you have jobs at all”). And Harrison’ asks, “How do we find ourselves in second place in a two-man race?” It’s a complex question, but I couldn’t help but think that one contributing factor is that talented people are being prevented from doing their jobs.

Mary’s tactic for getting into the class she needs to apply to the engineering program is to highlight all the ways the judge making the decision had been the first in his family to reach his status.

Dorothy tells her kids “We’re not part of that trouble” referencing the protestors, and moments later the librarian said, “We don’t want any trouble.” She’s not allowed to checkout the book on Fortran, so she takes it and has to explain these things to her kids, which underlines the challenge of explaining ugly aspects of the world to children.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas and Themes.

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?


Beginning Hook

As three African American women face down bigotry and misogyny to do their highly skilled jobs at NASA in the Jim Crow south of 1961, the US Space Program loses the initial race to beat the Russians to space when Russia puts Sputnik into orbit.

  1. Inciting incident: When the engineering team at NASA learns that the Russians are pulling ahead in the space race and their own IBM machine is far from ready, they reach out for any mathematicians they can find, and offer Katherine Goble the job of “computer.”
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: After struggling with various instances of misogyny and racism, the last straw for Katherine is having to run half a mile to use the so-called “colored ladies room.”
  3. Crisis Question: Her mother asks it outright: “Do you want this job?” It’s either accept the job and all the negatives and overwork that come with it, or return to the anonymity and comfort of the black women’s talent pool. Or, in Irreconcilable Goods form, the choice is between keeping the job and its potential honors, or be able to spend more time with her daughters at home.
  4. Climax: Katherine wants the job, the challenge, and the honor.
  5. Resolution: She tells her three daughters that she’s going to do what she can to help those brave men get to space.

Middle Build

When the Russians beat the US to a manned earth orbit, everyone at NASA must work at inhuman levels to put an American in space and solve the problem of bringing him back safely, with the pivotal tasks falling to the protagonists, though they must continue to deal with racism and misogyny at the same time.

  1. Inciting incident: The Mercury 7 astronauts arrive at Langley and the mission clock starts figuratively ticking.
  2. Midpoint Shift: Katherine lets her anger loose when questioned about the time it takes her to go to the restroom. Harrison gets rid of the segregated coffee pot and the segregated ladies rooms.
  3. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Al Harrison hands Katherine the chalk in the boardroom and puts her on the spot to prove herself. Her calculations are brilliant, but still don’t answer the crucial question of how they’ll calculate the re-entry point. “That’s the math we don’t have yet.”
  4. Crisis Question: Could the answer lie in old math rather than new?
  5. Climax: Yes. Katherine figures it out.
  6. Resolution: Despite her brilliance, the IBM computer replaces Katherine and act ends with her out of a job.

Ending Payoff

When it’s discovered that the IBM computer has made a mistake, Katherine is called back in to do manual calculations, saving the mission and John Glenn’s life, after which she and her two colleagues receive recognition and promotion at NASA and go on to have illustrious careers.

  1. Inciting incident: “Paul, something’s off here.” The IBM’s numbers aren’t right. “Go find Katherine.”
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Delays while Katherine calculates, then has to run once again between the West data center and mission control. They slam the control center door in her face.
  3. Crisis Question: Will she be allowed her share in the victory? Or will she walk meekly away?
  4. Climax: Harrison opens the door and lets her in.
  5. Resolution: Her calculations save the mission and she receives some small portion of the respect she deserves.

Additional Comments

Anne: There are three storylines, one for each of the protagonists, and they blend and meet at key points. I’ve focused on Katherine’s story as the central plot, but it would be much less of a story without the interweaving of Mary’s and Dorothy’s quests to rise in their respective fields. It has struck me both times I’ve seen it as a well-constructed screenplay, but behind the wonderful warm sense of victory you come out of the movie with, I’m left feeling that it lacks a certain substance. I pose the BY/FOR/ABOUT question here: Hidden Figures feels almost like a movie about African American heroes BY white people FOR white people. (The author of the book it’s based on is African American, but the screenwriter and director are both white American.)

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Anne: There are some excellent setups and payoffs in this movie. One was the string of pearls, the only jewelry the women were allowed to wear. A throwaway reference to the restrictions on women in the workplace, it becomes a key point in Katherine’s midpoint shift rant, and the symbol of the esteem she’s worked so hard to earn by the end of the movie. The other one I loved was subtle and purely visual. In the prologue the school principal hands little Katherine the chalk and asks her to prove herself, and this exact motif recurs at the turning point of the Middle Build, where she must once again prove herself in front of an audience.

Leslie: This film is so rich with multiple layers of conflict for the main characters: at home, as parents, as romantic partners, as people within the African-American community, and the larger community, and at work, so we get what’s at stake for them. Similar to Billy Elliot, the women inhabit completely different worlds/aspects of society in their daily lives.

Interesting use of the terms and irony: “Computers,” is a term we no longer think of as people who do computations, but non-human machines. The women computers would have been replaced by the gigantic IBM machine, but for Dorothy’s curiosity and willingness to learn and teach new skills. 

Mrs. Mitchell is a great example of Athena (the Father’s daughter archetype): female defender of the patriarchy.

This is the first movie depicting this time that helped me understand that at least some of the urgency driving NASA was a belief that winning the space race was required for survival. Whether this was true, it supports an Action subplot. 

Valerie: There are great examples in this film of one scene doing double or triple duty. The OS of “sidestepping” responsibility to perform: The word “sidestep” means that the protagonist doesn’t want to perform and willingly refuses, but this isn’t petulance. It goes hand in hand with the hero’s refusal of the call, and the hero can have a very good reason to refuse. In a story like Hidden Figures, where the protagonists are dealing with oppression on two levels (skin colour and gender), the sidestepping takes on a deeper meaning. This obligatory scene is used to express theme and global value shift.

Valerie/Leslie/Anne: Great example of how the choice of genre influences the way a story is told, where the emphasis is placed, and how the genre impacts the story.

Anne/Kim: The fact that the All Is Lost Moment doesn’t feel very high stakes is the thing that led us into the discussion of why this movie leaves us with a feeling of more cake than meat. The bitter pill of racism and misogyny that the white audience needs to swallow is liberally wrapped in something sweet.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time when we soar into Ang Lee’s 2003 “Wung-fu” Action + Society mashup Crouching Tiger, HIdden Dragon, the story of a secret young woman warrior and her attempts to be free of all her masters. The screenplay is by Hui Ling Wang, based on the 1935 Chinese Wǔxiá romance by Wáng Dù Lú.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.