By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
During the historical 1960s space race between Russia and the United States, intelligent minds at NASA worked long hours to guarantee (to the best of their abilities) that U.S. astronauts could travel to space and back as safely as possible. In this same decade, Black Americans were fighting for civil rights in a country where segregation and Jim Crow laws prevailed and prevented equality. At NASA, a group of intelligent Black women, particularly three brilliant minds, made names for themselves as mathematical computers working along with White Americans to make the space missions happen. This is the story behind Hidden Figures and it is a very inspirational one at that.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the three main ladies who surpassed racial barriers to establish themselves as math experts valuable to the space program. At the Langley Research Center in Hampton Virginia, these ladies became trailblazers in math science and engineering, starting at the segregated “Colored Computers” section. As these three and others began to prove their worth, they slowly, and with many obstacles, became rose in the ranks and became the first African-American women to work closely with the top brains within NASA. Their work led to the first achievements in space travel, ultimately leading to John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) historical orbit of the Earth.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, screenwriter Allison Schroeder and writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) have made a joyfully inspiring and exciting crowd-pleaser of a movie. Now for some people, that may sound like a negative–a film that might try to hard to make an audience happy. However, that really isn’t the case with Hidden Figures. With what probably are a few dramatic contrivances aside, the movie naturally and genuinely inspires by allowing the true nature and brilliance of the heroines drive the story and prevail realistically. This was a difficult time for Black Americans to achieve successful careers, but it was even more challenging for these Black women to prove themselves as good as or even better than their white superiors and colleagues. The fact that these women had to work extra hard and stand apart from the rest to prove their abilities, makes this story that much more heartening. The filmmakers do exceptional work in telling this wonderful story as do the talented members of the cast.
In addition to the three leads mentioned above, Hidden Figures can boast solid turns from Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Jim Johnson), and Aldis Hodge (Leroy Jackson). These actors offer great supporting work to the leads who absolutely shine in their roles. Taraji P. Henson offers a poignant and nuanced performance as Katherine Johnson, the mathematical genius who helped get John Glenn to orbit the earth and got him home in one piece. Octavia Spencer delivers a strong turn as Dorothy Vaughan, a defacto leader of the computers and one who wasn’t afraid to take on new challenges and challenge her ladies to do better. Janelle Monáe delivers a performance that is both empowering and entertaining as Mary Jackson, the most outspoken and passionate lady of the trio and one who had to challenge the system to accomplish her goals.
The characters in this movie and the real people on which they are based have much heart and passion for their work. This film treats them with the same heart, passion and respect that they deserve. NASA has already bestowed several honors upon these amazing women and their outstanding achievements. Margot Lee Schetterly’s book has honored them in the world of literature. Now, Theodore Melfi has celebrated them with a movie that helps their story reach even more people. It is story that needs to be told and one that everyone should hear and/or watch.