“Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good. I’m ready to go.”
Surrounded by IBM computer findings and a bevy of experts, Glenn trusted one person for this re-entry calculations. The woman he was referring to was Katherine Johnson, a brilliant NASA mathematician who just happened to be black. There’s a good chance you have never heard her story and “Hidden Figures” triumphantly seeks to change that.
With a family-friendly PG rating, “Hidden Figures” becomes an instant must-see film for both classrooms and living rooms. Boy or girl, man or woman, black or white, any audience member who has ever marveled at the Space Age of our national history will find much to love in Theodore Melfi’s follow-up to “St. Vincent” adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book.
Three historical African-American women from NASA’s history are given tribute in “Hidden Figures.” Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, a widower, mother of three, and prodigy-level research mathematician. She is joined by Janelle Monae’s Mary Jackson, a straight-talker and aspiring engineer facing closed educational opportunities. Their proverbial den mother and leader is data specialist Dorothy Vaughn, played by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer. All three work as “computers” among a pool of black women treated more like glorified secretaries than skilled individuals, especially by their white superior Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) .
Facing the segregation and marginalization of the era as both women and African-Americans, the ladies are constantly denied promotions, advanced assignments, and most forms of professional respect. The film follows the peak of the Space Race with the Russians who have already succeeded with Sputnik and Yuri Gregarin. Program director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), constantly preaching every lofty importance, and his top mathematician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) are nearing the John Glenn (Glenn Powell of “Everybody Wants Some!!) mission when they discover Johnson’s talents which may be the difference between failure and success. All the while, these women have families and personal lives (including a potential new suitor for Johnson in the form of Mahershala Ali) that suffer at home from their dedication and demands with NASA.
Henson, Monae, and Spencer rightly stand out from the sea of white shirts, neckties, and tie bars operating with veiled pleasantries and a greenhouse’s worth of glass ceilings. All three shine with poise, power, and principle to honor their real-life subjects, their intellect, and their heartfelt plights. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn are three individuals you cannot help but root because of the engaging and winning performances of the three actresses. Any of the three merit the Oscar talk being mentioned in their directions.
“Hidden Figures” plainly layers its positive message and historical storytelling with excellent recreations of facilities, tools, and technology. The set design and costume departments also add choice authenticity. “Australia” cinematographer Mandy Walker bends observant angles while still catching the scientific dazzle. Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer combine for an honorable score that permeates the spirit of the film without the extra layer of syrupy sap that you might expect with this subject matter. The timelines and composite characters may have been shifted for dramatic license purposes, but these female stories are more than worthy to be told and a justified crowd-pleaser.
LESSON #1: THE WRONGS OF SEGREGATION-- Even though there have been dozens of both fictional and fact-based films set during the era of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, from “Selma” to “Remember the Titans” and everything in between, the more the merrier are welcome to remind the generations of today of the wrongs of yesterday. There can never be enough of these movies, in this writer’s opinion.
LESSON #2: A HISTORY LESSON ON OLD-FASHIONED S.T.E.M. EDUCATION-- Kids and teens won’t believe you when you tell them and show them a time when their wasn’t an electronic device or an app to solve everything. People had to crunch the numbers by hands and battled trial and error constantly. Today may be a different landscape and work environment, but STEM education is just as valuable now as it was then.
LESSON #3: INTELLIGENCE IS COLORLESS AND GENDERLESS-- Women and minorities can attain and operate the same intellect as a man or a majority, plain and simple. Consider “Hidden Figures” as an essential viewing opportunity for girls, especially those of color.
LESSON #4: THE POWER OF AN EARNED COMPLIMENT-- The victories for these women in “Hidden Figures” don’t involve parades, fireworks, cheering crowds, squeezed tears, or orchestrated swells of music. They come in simple, yet substantial, gestures of shared respect. Acknowledgements of successful hard work in the form of nods, handshakes, kind words, and commendations both written and unwritten are more personal and mean the world.