Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

NASA’S all-female African American team called the “human computers.” Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Introducing some lesser-known stars in space …

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first words as he set foot on the moon in 1969 still resound: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet in Hidden Figures, the inspirational true story about NASA’s unsung women who were instrumental in the success of America’s nascent space program, another quote comes to mind: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Today’s frequent news articles addressing the dearth of female empowerment make Hidden Figures all the more welcome, with its heartening story about how three black female geniuses, referred to as the “human computers” took NASA by storm. Eventually. Because adding to the challenge of navigating 1960s chauvinistic waters was the fact that NASA’s Langley Memorial Research Lab was situated in Virginia, a state that prior to 1964 was still part and parcel of the Jim Crow south. Not only were the three women of Hidden Figures of vital importance to the victory over Russia in the race to space, but their contributions also advanced the fight for civil rights.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly – who relied on archival information, interviews and extensive research – the screenplay was written by director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Allison Schroeder. Schroeder, whose grandparents had significant roles at NASA (her grandmother was a programmer, her grandfather worked on the Mercury project), and who was an intern herself, had no knowledge of these three female pioneers. Yet eventually the word got out: in 2015, at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(l to r): Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) in "Hidden Figures." Photo Credit: TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

(l to r): Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) in “Hidden Figures.” Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

After an initial tease in which a 10-year-old Katherine is reciting prime numbers to herself while skipping down the lane, the film opens on the three lead characters derailed by a slight car problem on their way to work. As they banter, we’re introduced to:

Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson – a mathematical phenom, widow and mother of three little girls – who possesses both a heart of gold and a backbone of steel.

Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, the undisputed mother hen. As the unofficial head of the West Computing Group (a/k/a the segregated female department of NASA), she performs supervisor duties without the title and without extra pay. While she publicly bears it with grace, she never gives up her quest to succeed in a white man’s world.

Lastly, Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson, the local Hampton, VA girl made good by garnering degrees in Physical Science and Mathematics, ultimately becoming the first black female Aerospace Engineer. Jackson, well aware of her good looks, knows how to use them to her advantage.

Speaking of appearances, the witty Katherine delivers a verbal bomb as she dresses down a potential suitor who has no idea that he’s dealing with an Einstein in heels. “Yes, they let women do some things at NASA … and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”

The film adroitly cuts between the women’s professional and private lives. We get to know them not from lengthy back stories, but from how they connect with each other and their families – i.e., the carpool, church picnics, parties, weddings — as well as how they conduct themselves in the workplace. Aside from their well-honed senses of humor, the women all possess a strong sense of self-respect, unbowed despite the humiliating segregationist law of the land.

Melfi directs with a crisp pace. His and Schroeder’s screenplay is smart and buoyant, brimming with humor and snappy zingers. (After all, these women are extraordinarily bright; it’s only logical that their words would be as quick-witted as their minds.) However, levity aside, the filmmakers keep the issue of racial inequity on a slow simmer just beneath the surface. Whether it be the “colored ladies bathroom” that’s a mile away from Katherine’s workplace, or the white librarian who won’t let Dorothy check out a book on computer science because it’s not in the “negroes only” section, or Mary, who’s barred from taking advanced engineering classes at a non-integrated school, Hidden Figures repeatedly reminds us that the challenge for black working women in the 1960s to further their careers was nearly impossible to surmount.

Kevin Costner as NASA official Al Harrison, in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Kevin Costner as NASA official Al Harrison. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Performances are all-around terrific: Henson’s go-to powerhouse persona is imbued with an unexpected, lovely sweetness; Spencer adds on to her gallery of superb performances with her Dorothy exhibiting a perfect blend of unshakeable strength and calm humor; and Monáe — known primarily as a pop star — proves that she can keep up with the other two leading ladies in this, her first major role. Additionally, Kevin Costner as Katherine’s boss, the all-important Space Task Group Leader, delivers a strong portrayal of a workaholic who doesn’t give a damn about gender, or the color of anyone’s skin. For him, the only thing that matters is meeting — and exceeding — his expectations of excellence.

But here’s the rub: In Hidden Figures, while the women face difficult challenges, their ultimate victories are perfect (as are their children, spouses and parents). Surely, given the tenor of the times, it seems ingenuous that those having to live within the confines of the Jim Crow south could all skip off into a Technicolor sunset.

However, all things considered, this point is a minor glitch on the launch pad. Opening on Christmas Day, consider Hidden Figures as the uplifting lift-off to this holiday season.

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Rating on a scale of 5 requests from NASA to do the math: 4

Release date: December 25, 2016 (ltd); January 6, 2017 (wide)
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Based on the book by: Margot Lee Shetterly
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rating: PG

Here’s the trailer for Hidden Figures:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.