History has a way of disappearing women. This is particularly true when it comes to women of colour. Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures interweaves the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The film’s title is a gentle nod to the math necessary to plot the orbital trajectory of a rocket, but also to the women who helped to build the American space program. Read on…
Johnson (played with quiet ferocity by Taraji P. Henson) came to mathematical brilliance at an early age. By the time she’d turned fourteen she had graduated from high school, and in 1953 she took a job with NASA. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) became NASA’s first black supervisor, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) an aerospace engineer. But at the beginning of the film, they are three women with a broken-down car, who are late for work. This mixture of the prosaic with the extraordinary gives the action a lived-in feeling. Katherine may be shooting for the stars, but she still has to walk a half a mile across the facility to use the ‘coloured’ washroom.
Hidden Figures is a handsome production. The period details (everything from the character’s pencil skirts and kitten heels to the bilious green paint that graced the walls of NASA’s Langley Research Centre) are given close attention. The rest of the cast — Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, Jim Parsons as a NASA scientist, and Glen Powell as astronaut John Glenn — provide a sturdy framework, but it is the women who are the stars of the show. In addition to being scientists, engineers and mathematicians, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary also raised families, sang in the church choir and balanced home and work. A romantic subplot featuring the delectable Mahershala Ali as a veteran who takes a shine to Katherine is especially charming.
Director Theodore Melfi takes some poetic license with the individual stories, asserting a flavour of triumphalism into the action. But the opportunity to celebrate these fiercely intelligent and resourceful people is something to be cheered. In the film’s final coda, when the photos of the real women, in their cats-eye glasses and tidy hairdos, are revealed, the mixture of pride and strength evident in their faces provides the most enduring statement.
Nell Minow: Hidden Figures is not just about these women’s minds; it is about their hearts, their courage, and their dedication to a country that failed again and again to treat them with respect. This appreciation is long overdue for the women it portrays but right on time to remind us that only when we value everyone we can solve the most difficult problems.
Jeanne Wolf: Hidden Figures is uplifting and also revealing about the past in a way that will make you shake your head…HARD. The performances are sensational….the message hits your heart. The character, John Glenn- the astronaut who just passed away, will keep you smiling about him and the space program and these un-sung women.
Sandra Kraisirideja: Hats off to Taraji P. Henson for using her star power to tell a story that would otherwise never have been made. I can’t believe it has taken this long to see a movie about the space program from a woman’s point of view.
Jennifer Merin: Hidden Figures is the truth-based narrative that pays long overdue tribute to the brilliant and dedicated African American woman who did the math for NASA’s early space shots but who were discriminated against and disrespected by their employer and professional peers to the extent that they were not permitted to use the whites-only washrooms in NASA’s Texas headquarters. Brilliant performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and a first rate ensemble make this a not to be missed revelation and righting of American herstory.
Leba Hertz: A wonderful movie about a little known story about the importance of black women scientists and mathematicians to the NASA program
Title: Hidden Figures
Director: Theodore Melfi
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Running Time: 127 minutes
Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book
Production Companies: Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment, Fox 2000 Pictures
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Candice Frederick, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Perri Nemiroff, Liz Whittemore, Jeanne Wolf
Written by Dorothy Woodend, edited by Jennifer Merin, social media by Sandra Kraisirideja