At the broadest levels, Hidden Figures, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, is about the black women who worked for NASA (formerly called NACA) as mathematicians (called human computers, or simply, computers) during the 1960s and who helped calculate the trajectories responsible for getting the United States' astronauts into space. While the popular movie focuses on Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), the book also pays considerable attention to the lives and stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, respectively), and other black women (and a few men) who worked at NASA during this time.
The book tells the story of people whose efforts went largely unrecognized. Until Shetterly wrote this book, very few people even knew these women existed or knew of their contributions to the "Space Race," a time from about the 1950s–1970s in which the United States was "racing" with other countries, (notably Russia/USSR) to be the first to explore various aspects of space travel.
A prominent theme throughout the book is the struggle for the black women at NASA to simply be seen as capable, intelligent human beings. During the 1960s in the United States, both blacks and women were considered to be lesser than their white male counterparts. To be a black woman, then, was to have many strikes against you simply by existing. Segregation was still the law of the land for most aspects of everyday life. Hidden Figures tells the stories of the lives of the Black women who had to overcome both racist and sexist ideas to show that they were capable human beings and deserved a fair shot at proving themselves and their intellectual abilities.
In fact, as black women, the people represented in the book, often had to be even better than their counterparts (who were generally white men) just to prove that they were competent. The black women in the book were taking up space in unfamiliar ways: by being mathematicians and by working in space travel, considered a men's profession. This meant that there was a lot of discomfort and adjustments that had to be made as the black women and white men began working together. These adjustments were not only about physical work spaces, but also about underlying ideas and ideologies about who gets to be considered a competent professional.
A big takeaway from the book is that the white men and black women did learn to adjust to working together, which opened the door to desegregation in other areas of life more generally. Unfortunately, because very few people knew about this until Shetterly published Hidden Figures, the contributions of the black women mathematicians had been erased. On a larger scale, this erasure has contributed to harmful ideas that still persist today about the roles and places that blacks and women can take up in modern-day society.