Hidden Figures is about the hidden role of black women in NASA in the early sixties. It was going to have to work hard not to be enjoyable since I love history and movies about the space program. The story excelled at grabbing my attention. This film went way above my expectations delivering a powerful story that I loved.
The movie introduces us to three women who were influential within the space program in 1961: Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer). All three women work in the colored programming department where they work out equations and assist where they are assigned. Dorothy leads the group; she wants to be the supervisor but has to fight racial bias to gain the respect she craves. Mary wants to become an engineer at the encouragement of one of the engineers working on the shuttles but the classes she needs are not available to colored women. And Katherine is a mathematical genius able to do differential calculations in her head. She is a single widowed mother with three children to take care and must divide her time between them and the space program.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) runs the space task group and the team is under a deadline. They are attempting to get a man in space before the Russians and he needs a mathematician right away. He has computers that are being sent by IBM but they haven’t arrived yet. Harrison needs the calculations for the launch trajectories worked out immediately. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) is the lead engineer but has not solved the problem of how to send someone into space safely. So Harrison sends in a request for a calculator (as they call the women) and Katherine is assigned the job. She is the first black woman to ever work with the group and strives for their respect.
Mary goes to work with the engineer working on the shuttle and Dorothy continues to run her department. Dorothy learns about the computers and begins studying programming to give herself and her women an edge. Once the computers take over, their jobs will be obsolete. All three women fight the segregation of the time. Mary must battle in court for the right to take her engineering classes. Katherine must fight the prejudice of Stafford and his team. And Dorothy must continually strive against her superior, Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst) to be given the respect she deserves for her work. And the race begins to get a man into space and back.
As I said, this is one of the best films I’ve seen. It begins with humor, the three women stuck on the side of the road, Dorothy fixing the engine of the car. A policeman stops and asks for their identification. Once he discovers they work for NASA, he lightens up and asks if he can help. Dorothy proves she is perfectly capable of starting the engine. He ends up giving them an escort to the base, sirens blaring, three black women chasing a white policeman.
The acting is beautiful, each actor doing an incredible job. I was impressed with Katherine and Stafford. The tension between the two of them was extraordinary. The film is made more complex by introducing us to the three women’s life outside of work. There is a romance between Katherine and Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) who is in town to begin a National Guard station. Their story is sweet, funny and the chemistry is completely real between the two actors. There is a real friendship that you can feel between the three women and it is well balanced. Even though Katherine has the most time on camera, all the women get their moment to shine. And while the highlight was on the three women, all the other actors were incredible as well. I have to give a shout out to Glen Powell playing astronaut John Glenn. He was phenomenally charismatic and was so charming in the role. I want to see more of what this actor has starred in now.
From what I remember and researched of the history of the space program, it comes across as believable. While I’m sure there are some parts that were enhanced for dramatic effect, it’s still realistic. And even though I was familiar with key points of the history, I was still kept on the edge of my seat by the writing and action of the plot.
The story also integrated the segregation of black people and the effects that had on the women. The elements were woven into the story, driving the drama forward and giving viewers a clear understanding of the history of the era. And when one of the women broke through a social barrier, the audience cheered. By focusing on the personal lives of the women and the issues surrounding segregation, the audience appreciates the successes of the women even more and grows to love them. The plot is truthful to the time period, well written and well acted.
The characters were charismatic and dynamic. The story was riveting, truthful, funny, and had me in tears at the end of the film as photos of the real women are shown onscreen. It was well crafted and incredibly acted. I recommend that if you love the space program, if you love history and tough, funny women, you must see this vibrant drama. I loved every moment of it.
Rating: 5 stars
HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell and Kevin Costner
Screenplay by: Alison Schroeder, Ted Melfi, Lori Lakin Hutcherson
Directed by: Ted Melfi