Hidden Figures is a film aiming to appeal to many different groups. Luckily, it will satisfy them all.
It’s an inspirational story about three African-American women working at NASA in 1961. They, and a room full of other black women, supported the teams of American scientists who were out to be the first in the space race. Unfortunately, the Russians were beating the tar iyt of the U.S.in a big way with the launch of Sputnik, and the flight of Yuri Gagarin.
Katherine P. Johnson (Taraji B. Henson) is a master at mathematics. She is assigned to the project to launch a man into orbit as a “calculator” (math expert) checking the numbers of the white men in the office. They heartily resent her as a woman – and black. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the leader of the calculating team who has been denied a deserved promotion because of her color. No, that’s not the reason her supervisor gives — but it’s obvious it’s the truth. In an outstanding performance by Janelle Monae, the third woman, the feisty Mary Jackson wants to become an engineer in a state where the only path is taking additional technical courses — at a white segregated high school where she’s banned. So she goes to court to get her rights.
The film weaves two stories. One is the unequal treatment faced by black Americans in the early 1960s. From water fountains to ladies rooms, it shows the segregation despite the federal laws. The film uses news broadcasts from Martin Luther King and others to show how contemporary events are affecting the world around them. More importantly, the togetherness of the black community with small homes, church and family life is integral to the plot.
The other story is about the space race with all its early promise, drive, ambitions and near death experiences. Johnson’s team has to calculate how to put a man in space on a rocket, have him circle the earth, then land safely. The astronaut was John Glenn (who recently passed away).
Kevin Costner does a great turn as NASA project manager Al Harrison, a man driven to succeed and accepting of Johnson and her brilliance. Her opposition is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory) who is jealous of her talents.
There’s more afoot than discrimination. The computer age comes crashing in with an IBM mainframe that will do the calculations faster than any human – including the women in the calculating team. It’s Vaughn who finds a way to make them relevant (and keeps their jobs).
So, should you spend money on Hidden Figures? Yes. Kids will be inspired, adults will be proud of the women – and also of the time period with all its risks and courage, both in space and on earth. It brings alive a time period in all its complexity. As for the women? Make sure you stay for the beginning of the end credits to see what happened to them.
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