As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder (screenplay), Theodore Melfi (screenplay)
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge Aldis Hodge
Rating: PG; Run Time: 127min; Genre: Biography, Drama, History; Release Date: 23 December 2016 (USA)
We watched on a weekend evening a while, and both of us loved it. I hope it is something younger people see, so as to get just a taste of the discrimination and racism that existed, even a place of highly educated people, bent on keeping up a polite façade. And besides the lessons/reminders about our past, it was just a great movie.
“Hidden figures” is set at a time half a century ago with a convergence of three history-shaping events: the US-USSR space race, the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of the computer age (when the term “computer” was switched from denoting a human being to denoting a machine).
The three protagonists are three black women each with a dream. The movie starts with their car stranding on their way to report to NASA to work. The typical white cop who comes to their aid eyes them with suspicion, almost disbelief upon being shown their NASA identifications. Then, he cringes his head towards the sky as the three bewildered women follow his example. It becomes clear that his hatred for Russians (their satellite up there spying on us) far outweighs his dislike of Blacks and he ends up escorting the three women to NASA.
Dorothy Vaughan (veteran Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) has been repeatedly denied her promotion to a vacant supervisor position (which she has in effect been filling for a year) by her boss (Kirsten Dunst) who is all cool officialdom and by-the-book. When the first “IBM” (room-size and a capacity of, I guess, 32 or 64 bytes) finds its way into NASA, it is Dorothy, mastering FORTRAN by self-taught, that manages to get it started. My favorite scene is the IBM guys trying to get it to run.
Katherine G. Johnson is the mathematical genius whose calculations John Glenn (scene-stealing Glen Powell) trusts (a bit of artistic dramatization, I suspect). While depiction of discrimination is seen with all three women, hers is the most visual, in mad rushes to the segregation bathroom quarter of a mile away, until the big boss Al Harrison (a seasoned, measured performance by Kevin Costner) steps in to do something about it. Quite stereotyped is her immediate boss played by Jim Parsons. On the home front, she is a widow with three daughters, and a courtship by Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) culminating in one of the best proposal scenes I have seen in movies.
Mary Jackson (a very cute, cheeky Janelle Monae) should have been an engineer if she were a white man. With her supporting husband (Aldis Hodge) and kids, she fights for it and finally wins. The movie ends with an upbeat high note of John Glenn’s historical space launch.
Racial problems are depicted in some movies with gut-wrenching violence. Here, the approach taken is completely non-violent. Battles are won with reasoning and perseverance. Discrimination is depicted sometimes even with light-hearted humour, or stoic endurance. There is nothing wrong with either approach, seen as cinematic art.