Appropriately Titled Feel-Good Feature
In the early 1960s, tensions between the U.S and Russia were so strong that it even spilled over into the space programs. After the Russians jumped ahead in the Space Race when they launched the first man into space, the U.S. refused to be outdone and eventually managed the unthinkable when they landed on the moon.
Although audiences are familiar with the famous astronauts in this era – Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong – there were hundreds of overlooked men and women tirelessly working behind the scenes at NASA to launch these brave astronauts into space and bring them back safely. Within the ranks of NASA were a number of African-American women and these women are at the heart of the untold story, Hidden Figures.
This crowd pleasing drama focuses on three African-American women who work for NASA at Langley Research Center in the early 60s. These women face cringe worthy discrimination and unfair work conditions, yet still end up providing indispensable contributions to the space program.
The film starts by introducing its main character, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson, Empire 2016), who from a young age reveals an unrivaled brilliance with mathematics. Time passes, and we view Katherine as an adult who is assigned to literally work as a human computer at NASA, which still relies on manual number crunching. Katherine is tasked with double-checking the math of the unwelcoming white men in her new group who are stunned to see an African-American woman at their level, let alone drinking from the same coffee pot. Katherine’s friend, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, Fathers and Daughters, 2015), is also a brilliant mathematician with years of experience at NASA. Despite her tenure, knowledge and current role supervising a number of employees, she is prohibited from the official supervisor title and further advancement due to her color. The third member of their trio, Mary Jackson, played by singer and aspiring actress, Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, 2016), works with the engineers who are building the shuttles, but despite her brilliance, is barred from working as an engineer because she is black.
Despite all three women facing bureaucratic racial obstacles in their positions, they don’t sit back silently. They let their talents shine through in the hopes to elevate their position. Katherine, whose sheer brilliance with mathematics is eventually noticed by her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, Criminal, 2016), starts advocating for higher clearance and inclusion at meetings that were previously off limits to her, or any women for that matter. Meanwhile, Dorothy, frustrated with her lack of advancement, begins to teach herself computer programming when NASA finally adds computers, but lacks the personnel who can operate them. Finally, Mary challenges the Virginia education system to allow her to take the appropriate courses to get her engineering degree at all white universities. While the women start to make progress in their roles, the stakes only rise as NASA has announced it next mission to launch John Glenn (who coincidentally died a few weeks before the film’s release) into space. Glenn is tasked to be the first man to fully orbit the earth, a dangerous feat that has never been attempted.
Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is a heartwarming film carried by a strong cast and a well-crafted narrative. Henson and Spencer are unsurprisingly excellent in their roles. Monáe, who is best known for her singing career, is a natural as Mary and builds on the strong reviews she received for her performance in Moonlight. Costner is also stellar in his role as Katherine’s boss who sees past the color of her skin, but only helps her to break down barriers when he finally becomes aware of the obstacles her color creates. For instance, after months of Katherine disappearing for 30 minutes at a time throughout the day, she’s finally confronted by Harrison. He was stunned to learn that she was simply using the restroom all this time, but because of her color, she must run more than a half a mile (in heels!) to the other campus to use the colored facilities, rain or shine. In addition to the strong acting and plot, the score, a collaboration by Pharrell Williams and the legendary Hans Zimmer, is fantastic.
Hidden Figures is a very inspirational story is that examines the racial pioneers who rarely received credit. Although they were not active civil rights leaders, famous athletes or entertainers, the invaluable contributions from these women simultaneously broke down gender and race barriers during a pivotal time in American history.
Bottom Line: Hidden Figures is an untold story based on true historical events that proves talent and perseverance can triumph an unfair system. The powerful trio Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe conquer the screen with their remarkable performances of these unsung heroes. This feel-good feature is a must-see for 2017.
Credits: Directed by Theodore Melfi; Written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder
Cast: Taraji Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughn), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Glen Powell (John Glenn)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 126 minutes
Jessica DeLong © January 4, 2017