- on Friday, 06 January 2017 15:21
- by Frank Wilkins
It’s only appropriate that Hidden Figures is the first movie to tell the unbelievable but true story of a trio of brilliant women who – along with other NASA-employed black female mathematicians – helped America win the space race against the Soviet Union in the 1960s. After all, it is a film about many firsts set in a day and time when being first was still largely possible. Americans had not yet orbited the earth, black people had still not escaped the scourge of discrimination, and women (especially black women) were yet to have an equal place in the work force.
In what typically spells doom for a film project, Director Theodore Melfi takes on every one of these firsts and defies convention – that says attempting to tackle too many heady subjects doesn't work – by making an inspirational film that educates, entertains, stimulates, and simply makes us all feel a bit better about ourselves. It shouldn’t work, but darned if Melfi doesn’t pull it off.
Allison Schroeder’s screenplay which is, in turn, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel – focuses on three women who work in the “colored computers” department of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which would eventually become NASA. Before electronic computers took over the world, we relied on sheer brain power to calculate the complex mathematical equations that would allow us to send a man into space and return him safely to Earth. It took hundreds of people to accomplish the mission and Hidden Figures brings to light one little-known facet of the program that simultaneously represents the best and the worst of what America had to offer at the time.
Among these “brains” were the era’s Rosie the Riveters in aspiring-engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who is somewhat of a matriarch to this group of several dozen women. Each is extremely talented, but each also faces the challenges of racism and bigotry that arise in their workplace on a daily basis, namely from supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who addresses these women by only their first names, threatens them to not embarrass her, and precedes her directives by “you people.” Also standing in their way is Big Bang’s Jim Parsons as lead engineer Paul Stafford who wants to do what needs to be done to get America back in the space race, but feels threatened every time Katherine one-ups him.
Taraji P. Henson is the film’s heart and gets the most screen time as mathematician Katherine Johnson who becomes the only person of color (much less a woman) to work on the Space Task Force, the unit most directly involved in the launch and recovery calculations – one of the most critical aspects of the program. We get a generalized sense of the indignities these women face on a daily basis through Katherine’s mistreatment at the hands of co-workers. Forced to drink from her own coffee pot and to use the “colored only” restroom located a half mile across campus, Katherine’s value is eventually noticed by boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and allowed to become a regular member of the team.
These brave, intelligent women are true American treasures and deserve to have their story told. Thankfully that is done with grace and humility. If ever a story stood likely to come off as preachy or overly moralizing, this would be it. But Melfi never falls victim and instead expertly bathes his film in the social and cultural aspects of the time by touching on racism, integration, Jim Crow, sexism, discrimination, and the threat of communism while also allowing his film to appeal to the history buffs in the crowd. Pay special attention to the message and you just might be able to envision an inspiring future world that includes people of all sexes and races pulling together to achieve our goals.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language.
Runtime: 127 mins
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Allison Schroeder
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Tagline: Meet the women you don't know, behind the mission you do.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line."
Theatrical Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Official Site: http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures
Release Date: January 6, 2017 (wide)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
No details available.