There are quite a few Oscar nominated films about the civil rights era. There are also many about the space race. And there are even more about the importance of feminism, in one way or another. Until Hidden Figures, I cannot think of another great film capturing the importance of all three at the same time. Putting strong, smart women in a setting tensed by the space race and strained by segregation pulls this film in many directions, yet a delicate balance is achieved.
Based on a true story, Hidden Figures focuses on three African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is an extraordinary computer (she does the math) and is assigned to work on the trajectories of upcoming Mercury launches. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is also a computer but obviously has the mind to become a brilliant engineer, if only she could attend the all white classes. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) does the work of a supervisor without the pay, teaches herself how to work with the new IBM computer being installed that will eventually put her entire department out of work. She ultimately becomes the reason the IBM can function and brings her team of computers to work on it with her. Hollywood weaves their stories together in a very compelling, entertaining and heartwarming fashion, splashing in bits of their home lives.
The film is more engaging and entertaining than many space race films of the past. Most of the tension does not happen in space but on the ground within the walls of NASA before launch coordinates have even been calculated. Strain between Katherine and her white, male co workers, takes a toll on her work, and her bladder. It’s sad and comic as Katherine must hike an embarrassing half mile to the closest colored ladies room every day, in heels and carrying her work with her. It’s a small victory when the tables are turned and minutes to launch, a low level young man is sent running Katherine’s same route to find her with the other black computers when she is needed most.
Best of all, our leads, Henson, Spencer and Monáe, are just as wonderful together as they are individually. Henson portrays Katherine as a bit of a meek geek at first, but can keep up in a room full of white men and teach them a thing or two. Monáe’s Mary has just as much spunk as she does brains. Her scenes alongside an engineer Holocaust survivor, and her appeal to be the first black woman to take classes only for whites are poignant and memorable. And Spencer’s Dorothy is an unstoppable force, butting heads with white upper management and stealthily fixing issues with the IBM that leave the white boys scratching their heads. The trio’s opening scene together, trying to fix their car, is a hit that strikes the perfect chord to resonate throughout the entire film.
With nominations for Best Picture, best adapted screenplay and supporting actress (Octavia Spencer’s second nomination), Hidden Figures has made their way into the film history books nearly as well as the film’s subjects have. Honestly, I had never heard of either of these three extraordinary women before seeking out Hidden Figures. Maybe I read a quick headline when Obama presented Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but I did not know her story until now. The creators of this film have done a the world a great service bringing their stories to the masses. They are no longer hidden.
With a healthy PG rating, Hidden Figures is a wonderful film that can be fit for the whole family. Parents, if you are willing to to discuss the civil rights era, take your children to see Hidden Figures. If your child has any interest in NASA, the tech world or becoming an engineer, take them to see this. Just as importantly, if you child does not think math or school is important, you need to take them to see Hidden Figures. So many people have so much potential to do great things in this word, but only if they are given the chance.
“Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.”