Nutshell: An excellent look at heretofore unsung women behind the Astronauts. Director Theodore Melfi manages to combine the stories of three women, the cultural revolution of the era, and the history of the space program together in an affecting, enjoyable film. Stellar performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe bring these amazing women to life. Grade: A
“You have to see what she becomes.”
Story: In 1969, NASA was hoping to get a man into space. But they couldn’t seem to get the math right. Luckily, three mathematicians working in three different NASA departments – guidance and navigation, engineering, and the new “electronic computing” – were there to help. Oh, and bee-tee-dub? Those mathematicians were African American women, doing their best to succeed at their jobs during the thick of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Damn right you’re impressed.
Genre I’d put it in: True Stories That Would Have Made Cool Schoolhouse Rock Installments [I feel cheated.]
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Orignal: Based on the nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Gotta say: Before Hidden Figures, I had absolutely no idea that there were women working at NASA in the 60s. Y’know, beyond the usual administrative positions. Let alone African American women getting their math on. And so I walked into Hidden Figures full of anticipation, hoping for a great story. I wasn’t disappointed.
Writer/Director Melfi (along with screenwriter Allison Schroeder), took Shetterly’s book and added excitement and humor to an already interesting story. As real-life smart women Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Henson, Spencer and Monáe are vivacious, funny and smart. These are three women who knew their stuff, but also had a deep friendship. It’s fun to watch as these three dig into their characters, painting a picture of what those mathematicians must have gone through during that time. Monáe especially stands out, as this year is the first time the singer/songwriter has tried her hand at acting. And that she holds her own against powerhouses like Henson and Spencer is fantastic; I want to see her strut her stuff in more acting roles, please.
About that math. I can’t add with two hands and a calculator, but I dug the hell out of the scenes where these ladies crunched numbers, programmed IBMs, and got their engineering on. As Vaughan tries her hand at mapping a trajectory with numbers and math that “hasn’t been created yet”, it’s pure magic.
The fact that Figures digs into not only these women’s work lives, but their personal ones, paints a fuller picture of exactly what they were up against at the time. Not only were they facing racism and segragation at the workplace, but the world was a dangerous place, even though there were those working to make things better. Things begin to change both at NASA and in United States, but while this movie ends on a note of hope – including how each woman succeeded in her profession – there are many civil rights issues addressed here, and how these issues are addressed are shown as just the start, not the completion of things.
It was fun to see Scream Queens‘ Chad Radwell (aka Glen Powell) as John Glenn, and watching how everyone worked frantically just before Glenn orbited the earth was a finely tuned bit of suspense, even though we all know how it turned out. Nice work, cast and crew. And it’s always good to see Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, and Kirsten Dunst, though those last two got the thankless jobs of playing close minded bigots…
While much has been made of Spencer’s work in Fences (and rightly so), and the number of excellent films starring people of color this year, I hope this film doesn’t get washed away in Oscar buzz for those other films. Hidden Figures deserves its time in the spotlight too. Not only that, but this film would make a fantastic movie to show students during American History. Finally; a true-story history piece that’s a whole lot of fun to watch. Revolutionary, indeed.
#Protip: For more information on how African Americans helped further America’s voyage to space, these pieces in Air & Space Magazine http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/how-nasa-joined-civil-rights-revolution-180949497/ and NASA.gov https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/African_American_Astronauts.htmlare are a good place to start.