“Hidden Figures” Movie Review


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     Director Theodore Melfi’s crowd pleasing “Hidden Figures”, the true story of three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s and contributed with their genius level aptitude as mathematicians to the first manned space missions, provides a surprising lesson in United States history.  Surprising in that this story had yet to be told until the year 2016.  Much like Mel Gibson’s outstanding “Hacksaw Ridge”, the aptly titled “Hidden Figures” chronicles the kind of people in our history who worked behind the scenes, yet had a profound impact on the course of some of the most important events in their respective fields.  In this case, the United States and NASA were in a race to beat Russia and their space program to the moon, with a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in the way.  

     We are first introduced to these three fantastic women in the film’s opening scene.  Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are having conversation outside of their vehicle which has broken down and is parked on the side of the road, as their fellow co-worker, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is underneath the car determining the starter has gone bad.  In a sign of the times that is as prevalent today as it was some fifty years ago, a police officer pulls up behind them and their collective anxiety levels rise, as they strategize as to how they will deal with an authority figure during a time in which civil rights progress was still in its infancy.  African-Americans were referred to as “colored people”, and had everything from separate bathrooms to separate coffee pots and drinking fountains.  The scene is yet another stark reminder of our country’s horrid past, and the strides we have all made today to ensure equality.  But the circumstances then were an entirely different reality for minorities, making the story of these three women all the more remarkable.

     Known as “computers”, Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy work in a basement amongst thirty other African-American women completing various mathematical calculations for the space program at NASA.  Though their working conditions appear adequate, they are segregated from their white co-workers who work in other more prestigious buildings on the campus.  The lady’s supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), functions as more of a go between, keeping them busy and bringing their work to the engineers who confer with the decision makers.  That is until Katherine is brought on board as an assistant to lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), which puts her front and center within the heart of the organization and within eye sight of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the leader of the space program.

     The script by Melfi and first time feature scribe Allison Schroeder (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) moves through a series of scenes in which we see both the enormous contributions made by these three women, but also the internal struggles they faced while trying to break through the equally as enormous barriers in place due solely to the color of their skin.  One highlighted in particular is the fact the colored person restroom Katherine must now use due to her relocation on the campus is more than a half a mile away, which leads to an inevitable and memorable confrontation with Costner’s Harrison when he wonders aloud why she is gone for a half hour several times a day.  Katherine’s reaction to the inquiry is likely one of the best and most powerful scenes I’ve seen in a film all year.  Harrison’s response is also notable and provides just one of several feel good moments in the story.

     While no one performance stands out, the ensemble, featuring outstanding work by Mahershala Ali, Costner, Parsons, Dunst, and the aforementioned Henson, Spencer, and Monae, works well together in establishing the various interests and emotional levels needed to convey the most important aspects of this true story.  In truth, the stakes couldn’t have been higher when the work of these ladies became depended upon by John Glenn (Glen Powell) in order to properly re-enter the atmosphere without disintegrating first.  And there may be no better moment than the reiterated faith Glenn shows in the abilities of these women over the shiny new IBM mainframe computer NASA had recently acquired, indicating a very human aspect to the proceedings where it becomes clear you have someone putting his life in another’s hands.  That’s the ultimate example of trust and in this case, color had nothing to do with it. Nor should it ever.  GRADE: A