Warning: This review may contain mild spoilers.
Appreciation. It’s a condition which requires information and understanding and results in increased compassion, acceptance and inclusiveness. There are few ways to enhance appreciation for others more effectively than a well-made movie and the 2016 historical drama, Hidden Figures, takes full advantage of that opportunity.
Without being too busy or too preachy, this film helps the audience better appreciate the struggles of being a minority and a working woman (and even a mother working outside the home). In the early 1960s, the pressure involved in competing with the Soviet Union in the early years of the space race included the difficult challenges surrounding getting man into space (and returning him safely to Earth) for the first time and the courage it required of those who were willing to go. Witness the inspiring and powering film of how three African-American women and their team provide NASA with important and vital mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.
As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of the women, known as “human computers,” we follow these women as they quickly rise through the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds, specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.
Dorothy (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, develops a talent for programming IBM computers and is a natural leader, but is denied a well-deserved supervisory position by NASA culture and her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who struggles to balance the demands of her increasing responsibilities at NASA with caring for her three young daughters whose father has passed away. Mary (Janelle Monáe) is an outspoken aspiring engineer who is held back from becoming an actual engineer because of her lack of education, which she has difficulty overcoming because of segregation.
All three women make progress in their attempts to reach their goals and fulfill their potential, but with much difficulty, based on their gender and their race. Dorothy has been managing the women of the computer section for some time, but has to fight for the title and the pay. She even takes it upon herself to learn more about NASA’s newly-arrived IBM computer, while understanding that doing so could eventually cost her and her coworkers their jobs. Mary continues to make valuable contributions to NASA’s efforts, while trying to work through the catch-22 of needing additional education to become an engineer with the only nearby school offering such classes refusing to accept any black students.
Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story. As the most talented mathematician of all of NASA’s human computers, she is called up to work in NASA’s Space Task Group where she works directly with the standoffish Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and is supervised by the group’s director, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Even as Katherine continues to demonstrate her capabilities, she is still subjected to drinking coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and having to walk 20 minutes (each way) to the building where the nearest restroom for black females is located.
Eventually, she earns the respect of her peers and comes to the attention of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) himself, who comes to trust her calculations above all others. Katherine also attracts a different kind of attention from the commander of a local Army Reserve base, Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who is also single. Embodying the dual meaning of the movie’s title, Katherine works out the hidden figures needed for Glenn’s mission and Jim doesn’t mind that her figure is hidden beneath those unflattering 1960s dresses, as he comes to care more about her heart – and the very sharp mind hidden behind her even less flattering eye glasses.
The film punches all the buttons when it comes to segregation, space, engineering, and computers. The setting takes place in Langley, Virginia, in 1961. As women, they were employed as “human computers” because they were less expensive and they got their numbers right. As “colored folk,” they got their own separate and sparse restrooms and their own separate dining facilities. At the same time, civil unrest was rising in the towns. This is was all occurring during the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to prominence. It’s a time just before the rise of militant civil rights groups. It is a time when resistance to segregation and discrimination was still civil, but as the movie shows, that resistance was beginning to firm up and become widespread. Three remarkable women struggle to get their voices and, more importantly, their minds heard in an era where everything is against them, including the color of their skin.
True stories are often the hardest to depict on the big screen for the simple reason that you must do the story the justice it deserves. Hidden Figures is not only a fitting immortalization of an awe-inspiring story, it is quite possibly one of the most powerful cinematic experiences one can behold. It is just a shame it was not in existence at the time it was needed.
No film can be a success without the triumph of its actor and this film is no exception. It is rare that you find an actor that can fill a room with their presence alone and it is near impossible to find three in the same film. But Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all perform with such ease that they send shivers down the spine.
1960s America is not the easiest of sets to compose and yet the production team has managed to create authenticity throughout. From intricately detailed costumes to cars that cast the mind back, every detail of this film has been thought of and executed to perfection.
Hidden Figures is a marvelously entertaining film. The script adaptation by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi tells the true story accurately and engagingly, weaving its many storylines together seamlessly, educating and entertaining their audience throughout. Melfi also directs and uses his talented and award-worthy cast to thrill us, to make us cheer and give us moments of humor and just plain fun. I was impressed at how much this movie packed in without seeming cluttered, how much it affected me emotionally without being manipulative, and how much appreciation I gained for these women, their struggles and the importance of the times in which they lived and accomplished so much. It’s also surprising that so little has been widely known about these women—until now.
Don’t let Hidden Figures be a hidden treasure. This movie is truly an extraordinary achievement. There are several reasons to see this movie: from a civil rights perspective; from a feminism perspective; from the perspective of the early space race when we badly lagged behind the Soviet Union.
If you lived during this time, see the movie to remember. If you were born later, see this movie to see what things were like. This is definitely worth seeing over and over again.