Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Folks who follow G-POP.net on Facebook would know how interested in seeing Hidden Figures after viewing the trailer for the film. I had never heard of these women who helped NASA in their finest hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I finally got the opportunity to view it the other day.
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the unknown story of the African American women working as mathematicians at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the Space Race. Called “computers,” these women performed the mathematical computations necessary for the program long before actual machines called computers came around. In 1961, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) worked alongside Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) under unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) in the colored computers section of Langley Research Center in Virginia.
Dorothy has been doing the work of a supervisor, but has been unable to attain the actual title despite having applied for it numerous times and being more than qualified. Mary Jackson is an aspiring engineer, but, though some see her potential, laws of segregation prevent her from pursuing a degree in engineering. After the successful launch of a Russian satellite into space, NASA begins to feel even more pressure to send an American astronaut into space. When the promised IBM computer doesn’t arrive on time, Space Task Group Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) turns to Supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for a human computer who can solve the challenging analytic geometry equations needed to get their boys in space and back safely.
Thus, Katherine Goble is assigned to the Space Task Group, becoming the first colored woman on the team. Though she is met with some opposition and definite skepticism by Head Engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine proves herself on a number of occasions. Meanwhile, Mary discovers a fatal flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, offering her more incentive to fight for the degree she now realizes she deserves. And when the IBM 7090 actually does arrive, Dorothy realizes it will mean the end of her “computers.” Facing extinction at the hands of a machine, Dorothy decides to learn everything she can about the IBM 7090 and teach her fellow employees how to program the computer so their jobs will be saved.
These very special women helped to ensure that John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) Earth orbit launched and arrived home safely. Eventually Mary obtains her engineering degree, Dorothy becomes supervisor of the Programming Department and Katherine computes the trajectories for both the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.
I’ve read a great deal about the astronauts of the Space Race and even about their wives. I learned quite a bit about the NASA space program. And yet, I had never heard of Mary Jackson, Katherine Goble or Dorothy Vaughan prior to this film. The idea that people with such amazing influence on such a historic period in American history could fly completely under the radar, never being discussed in any course in history I’ve ever taken speaks volumes to this country’s inability to accept women, particularly black women’s, contributions to our way of life. I’m so glad that someone decided it would be important to tell the story of these amazing women and I applaud the powers that be who decided to elevate that telling by adapting the book into movie format. Books are great at relating history to the masses, but movies bring them to more people, just based upon the way they are marketed and the availability of the masses to view them.
True, I have learned that some of the events were changed a tad for the film, but that doesn’t take away from the powerful message that Hidden Figures relates to women of every race, religion and ethnicity – you can achieve anything through hard work and perseverance. Just look at the challenges these women faced at the time. Segregation laws meant that the colored computers worked in an entirely different area than the white computers. Bathrooms for colored were few and far between and in primarily white buildings, colored bathrooms may not be present at all. Women were looked down upon and not seen as particularly capable in jobs like engineering just based upon their gender. Black women were seen as one step lower than that. This makes what Katherine, Dorothy and Mary achieved even more amazing. How incredibly empowering this film is to women, especially black women!
Performances in this film were stellar. I have always said that Taraji P. Henson is an under-rated actress and she more than proved her worth in her performance as Katherine Goble. This is as different a character as any she has ever played before and she nailed it. I loved the sass of Janelle Monae in the role of Mary Jackson and I’ve loved Octavia Spencer is terrific in every single role I have ever seen her in, her role as Dorothy Vaughn no exception. It was nice to see Mahershala Ali in yet another award-winning film this year (see Moonlight) as the military officer that eventually wins the heart of Katherine Gobel. Other excellent performances include Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, Glen Powell as John Glenn and Jim Parsons as a particularly despicable Paul Stafford.
Hidden Figures is a well-acted film that sends an important message to women of today and I would recommend it to anyone, especially parents of young female children who could use the added positivity of the empowering message this movie imparts.