Theodore Melfi, director and co-script w/Alison Schroeder based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Starring: Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Jackson), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Jim Johnson)
The sentence “Based on a real life story,” often makes the difference in a Hollywood film. Knowing that the African-American women depicted in Hidden Figures actually had a major impact on the U.S-Soviet Union “space race” in the 1950s and ‘60s adds to the appreciation audiences will feel when watching this “black lives matter” film. Yet another entry in the rapidly increasing genre of films extolling mathematicians—think The Infinity Game, Good Will Hunting, Proof, A Beautiful Mind, Pi—Theodore Melfi’s docu-drama is pro-nerd as well as pro-Civil Rights. It shows that even when prejudice in the U.S. was still at its awful height, being smart could break down barriers.
Set in that heroic era when the civil rights movement was making an impact on America, Hidden Figures concentrates on three women who made genuine contributions to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). It was a time when the U.S. was desperately trying to catch the Russians in the attempt to put men on orbit around the Earth—and eventually, on the Moon. The three women who are profiled in the film—math genius Katherine Johnson; pioneer computer programmer and recruiter Dorothy Vaughan and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson—were significant players in NASA’s successful race for space.
Director Theodore Melfi co-scripted an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction account of how these three women and more than a dozen other African-Americans withstood prejudice to work for the greater glory of the U.S. during the height of the Cold War between Communism and Capitalism. While doing that, they also struck a blow for equality in the work place for African Americans and women. Fighting on two fronts—working for changes in America while also aiding the U.S.’s cause globally—women like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson are genuine heroines.
A film like Hidden Figures is freighted with good intentions, as is this review. Melfi has to make it crystal clear what his African American scientists were encountering while making advances in the space race. They encounter scenes of outrageous prejudice, which are defused by these feisty and super-intelligent ladies. Even more interesting is the way they deal with the coldly efficient demeaning attitudes of white co-workers, especially those played by Kirsten Dunst (surely too young to be a character actor!) and Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons (a very amusing bit of stunt casting).
The key scene in the film is when Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson finally has endured as much as she can take and erupts into a screaming fit when her NASA boss, Al Jackson (played by Kevin Costner), demands to know why she’s “never at her desk.” After all, he points out, it’s a crucial moment in figuring out the trajectory for astronaut John Glenn’s orbital flight around the Earth. Soaked from being out in the rain, running half a mile for a legal washroom, an incandescent Johnson points out that there are no “coloured” women toilets in their building—or any of the others nearby; that’s why she’s not always at her desk. It’s a face-off between boss and gifted worker.
In the next scene, Costner’s Jackson hammers down the “coloured” sign in front of the women’s washroom. This story took place less than 60 years ago in Washington D.C., a town that is still divided between blacks and whites, although not legally.
Sometimes a space race can be won with a hammer, not with mathematical equations. Hidden Figures is a film well worth seeing. It’s about race–not just space.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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