What a great way to start out the new year with this gem of a movie. HIDDEN FIGURES uses an all star star cast to bring the story of Katherine Johnson (Traji P. Henson) , Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) , and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) to life. The film tells the true story of these three African American women, who used their Mathematical skills at Nasa to help the United States achieve victory over the Russians in the space race of the 1960s. All of this happened as the country struggled with the segregated Jim Crow south and all the ugliness that entailed.
The film starts by introducing us to with Katherine as a very young girl at school and her parents being told how special she is concerning math. Special enough to be accepted to college as a prodigy where she is given the chance to see how far her talented mind could take her.
Next the story lets us meet her as a grown woman, riding to work with her two best friends, Dorothy and Mary, all of them working at NASA . Before the huge IBM computers were installed, there were whole departments of “human Computers” whose jobs were to do all the mathematical calculations needed to help the scientists put a man into space.
Each woman has their own goal they are trying to reach at work, and have to struggle for professional recognition from their white, mostly male, colleagues.
Katherine, who is the mathematical genius, has been assigned to the all male team, lead by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that is responsible for calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and guaranteeing his safe return. She has to prove that she belongs and is an asset to this team. This is not easy as her direct supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) despises her very presence and goes out of his way to make her feel unwelcome, forcing her to use a separate coffee machine just because she is black. While working hard at NASA Katherine also has to take care of her family at home. She is widowed, so she has her mom living with her helping to take care of three young girls.
Mary, who has a mind for engineering, has been requested by Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) to be assigned to the engineering department. He believes in her abilities and encourages her to apply for an opening as an engineer. When she does however, the person in charge of HR, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) seems to take perverse pleasure in letting her know they have changed the kind of degrees needed to apply for the job. Mary is then forced to petition the courts for permission to attend an “All White” high school at night that offers the college courses needed to get the degree. At home, her husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) at first thinks it’s foolish to fight against a system set up to make the black man fail. But, he really loves his wife and ultimately supports her decision to go to court.
Finally, Dorothy, who is the oldest of the friends wants to be a supervisor at NASA. She has been handling all the responsibilities that a supervisor would over the negro department of human computers but without the advance in title or pay. She has a mind for how things work, electrical and mechanical, and also sees the writing on the wall. When she passes the room where the huge IBM computer is being set up she asks what it is and how it works. She knows that her department will soon be replaced by this machine, that can do all the calculations they do in a fraction of the time. So, she takes the initiative to go to the public library and look for a book on computer programing. She's at the library with her two young sons when she is asked to leave because she was in the “whites-only” section where the book that she needs actually was. On the bus ride home, she takes this opportunity to let her son's know that just because segregation is the law that it doesn't make it right. And she also shows them the book that she needed that she snuck out of the library. Her sons asked her if that’s stealing and she says, “No it is not, my taxes pay for that Library.” By getting the book she teaches herself the programming language and trains herself in how to work with computers. She then takes this knowledge and trains her whole department so they will be ready when the computers need programmers to make it run.
Besides all the struggles that are going on at work the movie also has a very sweet romance story going on between the lead Katherine and the handsome colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). They meet at church when he returns home from the war and her friends introduce them. Their courtship is very sweet to watch.
The film Hidden Figures covers a lot through the story of these three friends and their accomplishments. The sixties were a turbulent time of African Americans fighting for their rights, women fighting for their rights at work, and the United States fighting to beat the Russians into space. This film does a great job of showing the injustices that segregation placed on people of color without vilifying all white people.
The film did a great job with the costumes and set dressing, getting the look and feel of the 60s’ down right. The performances by everyone are top notch especially by Traji P. Henson who is best known for her tough ex-con character of Cookie on the TV show Empire. Her fans will get to see a softer side to her as she brings Katherine to life in this film.
I think Hidden Figures is a great PG film that anyone would enjoy. I saw it in a theater filled with multigenerational families. It was awesome to see kids under 10 with their parents and their grandparents together, enjoying the film, and then talking about it afterwards. It's a wonderful way to learn about these amazing women that were true American Heroes even if they are yet to be well known.
I hope this film will encourage Hollywood to tell more stories about the women, behind the scenes of history, who dared to dream big and made a positive difference to our country. Go see this film, you'll be glad you did.
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written By Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Running time 127 min
Limited Release date: Dec 23rd 2016
Wide release: Jan 6th 2017
Cast Features:Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kristen Dunst, Jim Patersons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell