In honor of Katherine Johnson...

Applying the Hero's Journey
to the movie Hidden Figures 

By Ed Wojcicki
April 2, 2020

The recent death of Katherine Johnson prompted me to look in a new way at the classic hero's journey and how it applies so well to the heroines in the movie Hidden Figures, which came out in 2016.

Hidden Figures has nearly all of the stages of the classic hero's journey, which can also be found in quite a few other great movies, including Star Wars, Dances With Wolves, and The Matrix. In this analysis, I use Hollywood producer Christopher Vogler's twelve stages* as my starting point. You will see immediately why I call the three women in Hidden Figures "heroes." 

1. The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD
A young Katherine Coleman (later Katherine Johnson) is doing amazing geometry problems in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1926.

2. The CALL TO ADVENTURE
Katherine and two other black female mathematicians – known as “human computers” because they do math by hand – are introduced as working in a segregated unit of NASA in 1961. Mary Jackson wants to be an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan wants to be a supervisor. A sign in their office calls them “colored computers.”

3. The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
Mary is told by her husband that no Negro woman can be an engineer, and Katherine faces many obstacles from a racist lead engineer. (The women don’t actually refuse the call, but they do face many people who would prevent them from crossing the threshold.)

4. The hero is encouraged by a MENTOR 
The three women are friends, they car pool together, and they become mentors for each other as they deal with a male-dominated, segregated culture in NASA. 

5. The hero passes the first threshold. (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
Katherine’s racist boss, who is a white woman, escorts Katherine to the Flight Research Division and tells her that she is the first black person ever to work there. Katherine goes in to assist with calculations for America’s first space orbit.

6. The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
Russia beats the USA to space with the Sputnik launch in 1957. Each woman faces many obstacles. Mary cannot get into the all-white school where she needs the classes to be an engineer. Katherine must go a half-mile away to use the “colored” women’s bathroom. Dorothy “steals” a book from a library after being denied access to the section on computer programming. Dorothy’s entire group faces loss of jobs if the first IBM mainframe computer gets running at NASA. Katherine makes an ally in Al Harrison, a senior executive. Another ally is astronaut John Glenn, who trusts Katherine’s figures.

7. The hero reaches the innermost cave. (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)

8. The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
John Glenn needs totally reliable calculations for the orbit and the return to earth. Katherine and Mary provide the critical calculations and the engineering advice.

9. The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, CLAIM THE REWARD)
Al Harrison gives Katherine credentials to the control room and ushers her in. Dorothy teaches herself FORTRAN and then teaches it to the other "female computers." They all transfer to a different building at NASA to program the new IBM mainframe. Also, Katherine “gets the man” and a marriage proposal from the handsome colonel, Jim Johnson.

10. THE ROAD BACK (sometimes the MAGIC FLIGHT)
John Glenn’s space capsule has a life-threatening problem with the heat shield. His re-entry becomes the treacherous “magic flight” in many hero’s journeys.

11. RESURRECTION.
John Glenn splashes down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. 

12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
NASA plans a moon landing and Katherine vows to help; she works for NASA until retiring in 1986. Dorothy gets promoted to supervisor. Mary becomes an engineer. 

NOTE: 

*Few stories have all 12 stages or follow the 12 stages sequentially. They nonetheless have the framework for tracking the classic hero's journey. The classic Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell has 17 stages, often popularized in 12 stages as depicted by Hollywood producer Christopher Vogler in a 1985 seven-page memo.

Ed Wojcicki lives in Springfield, Illinois. [email protected]fs.org. His unique applications of the hero's journey to movies, books, and cops can be found here.