Hidden Figures Sheds Lights on Heroes Your Kids Need to Know
Did you know about the African-American women working behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960s who helped put astronauts on the moon? Bet you didn’t learn about Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in school – nope, it was Apollo 11 pilots Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and John Glenn got all the textbook glory and history’s accolades.
Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of how these intelligent and courageous women fought against racial and gender bias to rise to the top of their professions. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are among the brains behind one of the greatest scientific operations in history: The launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that spurred the space race (ultimately leading to the moon landing), and basically galvanized the world while setting off a chain of events that has led to the advanced technology we enjoy today.
The story opens at Langley in 1961, where pragmatic Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), ambitious Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and feisty Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) work as “computers” for NASA. Computers were people who calculated by hand the complex geometry and engineering required to launch the first manned space missions.
We see, through a series of well-crafted flashbacks, that Katherine was a wunderkind, a little girl with an intellect so powerful it could not be contained to conform to her modest existence. When adult Katherine is sent from the computer pool to a different department to help figure out vexing calculations for new boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), she is told by her supervisor, “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine; don’t embarrass me.”
Katherine is one of only two women on the entire wing, and the only person of color. This was in the South in the days of segregation, so she wasn’t even allowed to use the bathroom in the building where she worked – rain or shine, Katherine had to walk a half-mile each way to pee in the “Coloreds Only” restrooms across the Langley campus.
Mary is forced to leap through legal hoops to attend the segregated Virginia school that can provide the necessary training and degree for her to become an engineer. Meanwhile, Dorothy does the work of an office manager over the entire department of computers, but without the title or the extra dough. Dorothy reports to the stern but not altogether unsympathetic Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who is overwhelmed with the massive urgency and pressure put upon her and everyone she works for to win the space race against the Russians. Undaunted, Dorothy takes on a new responsibility: Learn not only how to use, but how to program, the massive and very intimating room-sized IBM machine that is about to put the human computers out of a job.
Expertly blending the women’s personal lives with their career ambitions, director Theodore Melfi, who cowrote the script with Allison Schroeder, paints a fully-realized portrait of his characters within the confines of a true story. The cast is more than up to the task of showing us all sides of these truly amazing women. Henson is best-known for the character Cookie Lyon on the television hip-hop nighttime soap, Empire. But she’s about as far from Cookie as Katherine’s low-heeled sensible shoes can carry her. Behind Henson’s expressive eyes, you can see so much – from the crushing disappointment of not being treated as an equal by some of her peers, to her genuine excitement when John Glenn (played amiably by Glen Powell) lands safely after his harrowing orbit. Spencer and Monáe create vivid, funny, and nicely nuanced performances which really give texture to the reality of history and how slowly the wheels of change – even when it comes to rocket ships – can be.
The overall look of the film is aided by incredible attention to detail with everything from wardrobe to décor, and the cinematography by Mandy Walker is clean and crisp with admirable style, but it’s not “stylistic.” Though it’s a period piece, she lenses the film in a timeless manner that’s both complementary to the characters and subject matter. The only thing that irritated me a bit was the music. The songs by Pharrell Williams, who also serves as a producer of the film, don’t fit with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s modest and simple score.
Hidden Figures accomplishes an amazing feat by streamlining complicated world events and contrasting them with interpersonal relationships – and never forgets the humor found in everyday life. The filmmakers don’t shy away from focusing on the mathematics, engineering and technology, as well as portrayals of 1960s era racism and sexism. Rated PG-13 and not pushing any envelopes when it comes to sex or violence, it’s an absolutely perfect movie for kids of all ages to see. Hopefully it will encourage them to read the nonfiction book of the same name, written by Margot Lee Shetterly.
It’s a “feel good movie”, but Hidden Figures is never schmaltzy and is doesn’t gloss over the weighty issues. This story is not about the unfairness of subversive prejudice, but focuses on the strength of the human spirit and the ability of the women to flourish within these circumstances as they break barriers along the way. Though all this happened in the past, the message resonates to this day. Hidden Figures is empowering, especially for younger audiences.
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