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In the 1960s, reaching upward toward the glass ceiling anywhere, was an unrealistic goal of women. From the opening scene of Hidden Figures, viewers are swept in and brought back into history, and throughout the film they are captivated by realities of these women’s passions for life, relationships, progress, and work in the face of oppressive racism, sexism, misogyny, discrimination, and the mania to get into space. Viewers come away questioning how it is possible they could have never known about these brilliant women and mourn the fact that they have been robbed of that knowledge all these years.
Katherine Johnson, played young by Lidya Jewett and then as an adult by Taraji P. Henson, is, from childhood, a brilliant mathematician and has found work at the segregated West Area Computers (The ‘Colored Computer’) division of the Langley Research Center. There, she works with colleagues Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who desires to be an engineer, a position open only to males. To achieve that goal though, she would need more education, though as a Black woman, she is prohibited from attending any school that would offer such education. Additionally, she would need to enter the Colored Only entrance to the courtroom to challenge the ruling. There’s also brilliant mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who works in the role of informal supervisor to the team of Black employees, but is not compensated for the additional responsibilities.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), a NASA official in charge of the Space Task Group, is impressed by Katherine’s work. He’s under great pressure to get astronauts into space, and as such, Katherine is eventually assigned to his group, becoming the first African-American woman on the team. It’s not easy. Aside from Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the head engineer who neither respects nor validates Katherine’s work, she and other Black women experience the clearly drawn lines of Jim Crow laws in Virginia. No matter how brilliant, they face daily judgment, incivility, disdain, and disrespect from Whites who believe themselves to be superior. Day after day, time after time, they inhale the essence and bare the inequities of such ugliness. Yet, they continue to respect themselves, love their families, and be committed to fulfilling their work expectations to the highest quality, while being told that they are lucky to have their jobs at all.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, who also directed St. Vincent (2014) and Winding Roads (1999), and written by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is gentle enough to encourage all viewers to feel comfortably engaged. It delivers exquisite points that cannot stop painful, angry, groans of regret and disbelief. For many, the 1960s may only be the remnants of memories or knowledge of black and white or faded color images from history books and old newsreels, and yet here, the film brings this era into clear and colorful view. It includes locations, props, sets, as well as authentic images and videos that allow the viewer to see not only into this decade, but also into NASA as it raced into space. Hidden Figures nods at the imperative roles of Black women working as human computers, and in fact, all women who worked at NASA.
An interesting aspect is how effectively the movie shows the available technology with which men and women of NASA had to work. Considering today’s highly advanced technology, as compared to that available in the 1960s, the viewer experiences wonder and respect regarding passionate, exacting work accomplished with the seemingly limited technology of the era. We are reminded of the many taken-for-granted conveniences modern technology today affords. Many may believe that the civil issues of that era are no longer a part of our present, yet powerful and sometimes quite fleeting visuals slam the viewer with a harsh reminder that racial inequality was not only an ugly fact of our country’s past, but also facilitates the viewer’s recognition and admission that discrimination remains solidly in place today, decades later.
At minimum, we become attached to the characters and relate to what many of them metaphorically represent. Thus, each scene clearly indicates the phenomenal work accomplished by these three brilliant Black women while they faced consistent discrimination. Furthermore, the score (Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer) does not have the sound or feel of typical space or science movies, which infer nothing about females let alone, Black females. Rather, the score communicates an essence of the era.
The Black women portrayed in Hidden Figures are remarkable history makers and changers at NASA, no longer hidden from common knowledge. The film invites us to experience what passages in a history book can only tell. Hidden Figures motivates us to consider how wonderfully different our lives could be if all colors, all types of humans, are not just tolerated, but rather acknowledged, accepted, respected, and embraced. Imagine the heights that we could reach.
Further Viewing: Hidden Figures is a movie to be added to any list of movies about civil rights during the 1960s, and we recommend a selection of others such as Selma (2014), Freedom on My Mind (1994), Freedom Riders (2010), Mississippi Burning (1998), The Loving Story (2011), 4 Little Girls (1997), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Malcolm X (1992), as well as The Watsons go to Birmingham (2013) for younger audiences.
Movie description: Hidden Figures is a 2016 drama, based upon true events focusing on three Black women employed by NASA. They, among many other bright young Black women, computed numbers necessary for the successful launch of and return to Earth from missions into space.
Director(s): Theodore Melfi
Actor(s): Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Genre: Biographical, Drama