I thought I knew everything about the space program and the first Americans to land on the moon, but low and behold something new. Hidden Figures is the story of three brilliant African-American women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Taking place at the beginning of the 60’s Civil Rights Movement, these women played a vital role in the space race against Russia.
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Writer: Theodore Melphi
Director: Theodore Melphi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner
In the early 60’s, computers were a new thing. So new that even NASA did not have a computer. The high-level calculations required to successfully launch a man strapped to the front of a rocket, get him into orbit and find the right trajectory to bring him home safely was left to a small pool of mathematicians. This mathematician was Katherine Johnson played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson’s job was to double-check the work of the NASA engineers.
Johnson faced several challenges. As important as her work was, Johnson lived in the segregated United States. She couldn’t drink coffee from the same pot of co-workers and the only colored bathroom was on the opposite end of campus. Her work was also hampered by the top-secret material she was asked to work on and a great deal of information she needed was redacted with a large black marker. Also, her department was far behind in its work and the Russians were outpacing the U.S. to space. Outside the box thinking was needed to create the math required for safe space flight.
The only bright spot is the project team leader, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), whose job was to find the math by any means. The goal was the prize and it didn’t matter who or what came up with the solution as long as the solution could be found.
While the film focused primarily on Katherine Johnson, there was also Dorothy Vaughn who worked in the pool of American-American office temps. While she worked there, she was really the one in charge and served as the administrator of that pool. The problem was she was asked to do the work of a manager, but without the title of manager nor the salary of one. Her requests for promotion turned to the dear ears of her supervisor, Vivian Mitchel (Kirsten Dunst).
Finally, there is Mary Jackson, who is assigned to engineering specifically by it’s team leader, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) because he saw in Mary Jackson the tools necessary to become a NASA engineer. Jackson’s problem was that she did not have the education needed for the job and the education she needed could only be obtained from a whites-only school.
Hidden Figures hits a lot of notes. First, it’s an inspiration film about an inspiration story. The 60’s was a time when you could not sit around and wait for someone to rescue you from adversity. You had to rescue yourself. For Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson, they fought for their place in history. They fought hard and succeeded (Spoiler Alert!)
Hidden Figures is also a civil rights and women’s rights film. History shows that the most unreachable goals, like landing on the moon, cannot happen if you leave it to just the white men. You have to expand your circle of knowledge and creative thinking, especially when your answer does not lie with someone of your same gender or ethnicity.
Finally, Hidden Figures is a math movie. Nerds and geeks rejoice, math was just as cool in the 60’s as it is today (Not sure this is the most convincing statement).
Hidden Figures manages to overcome the problems that many biographical film face. The story moves smoothly and does not feel like a series of one happy event to the other. The moments of character revelation feel real and the moments of heroism from Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson don’t feel heavy handed. Although my favorite line from the movie comes from Costner’s Harrison character, “At NASA, we pee the same color.”
Fine acting. Films like Hidden Figures succeed with you have great actors in great roles. These fine actors help build the credibility of the people they portray. The lead actresses, especially Henson, manage to bring dimension to their roles and create three distinct characters. Each actress fights through her individual problems uniquely.
Hidden Figures is an amazing story about the mission to the moon. A story that until now would have gone unnoticed. It’s also a film of inspiration. The lesson to keep fighting to be who you were meant to be.