By Zandra Wolfgram
Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three 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.
Released by 20th Century Fox on the heels of Martin Luther King Day and just prior to Black History and Women’s History months, Hidden Figures is a PG film about three seminal African-American women largely left out of history books. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
Known as “computers in skirts,” the three women worked behind the scenes at NASA in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Their meticulous calculations helped the United States catch up in the space race and launch Glenn into orbit around Earth.
Written by Allison Schroeder (Mean Girls 2) and directed by Ted Melfi (the recent Bill Murray picture St. Vincent), Hidden Figures transports us to a nostalgic 1960s with the music of the day, figure-flattering A-line dresses, small town life scenes in small town Virginia, where the separation of whites and “coloreds” is as intentional and pervasive as the Mad Men-era crew cuts.
From the opening scene of this sassy, sumptuous film in which a white police officer pulls his cruiser over to question three African-American ladies as they tinker with their stalled Chevy Impala, we get our first clue that these three musketeers are quite capable of fixing broken starters…and breaking social barriers.
Each female character is on a mission (beyond the NASA launches they work on). Katherine, a brilliant mathematician, wants to be treated with respect from both her colleagues and suitor and given credit for her mind’s “computer” capabilities. Dorothy, who becomes NASA’s first African-American manager, wants a promotion that is past due. And Mary, who becomes NASA’s first black female engineer, simply wants the opportunity to earn an education to fulfill her potential.
These are admirable goals many hard-working people still strive for today, but as African-American women in the segregated south in the ‘60s, pursuit of these elusive aspirations took as much tenacity and courage as the lunar landing.
Adding to the drama of the film experience, this reviewer chose to see it on the day of the first Women’s March on Washington. From the million-plus crowds that gathered around the globe, it is clear that 50 years later, women are still banding together to have their voices heard.
Though there is work yet to be done to bridge race and gender gaps, thanks to Hidden Figures, three heroines—and their inspiring, real-life success stories—have found their rightful place in history and in our hearts.
This is a hopeful, soaring film. Not only do you get to discover three impressive historical figures, you also get to see three Oscar-worthy performances from three amazing actresses. If we do the math, that’s six figures we’ll bank on all day long.
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