“Hidden Figures” (2016) Review

Hidden Figures (2016)

Dir. Theodore Melfi; Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
[3.5 stars]

          Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) star in Hidden Figures (2016), a film about three black women working in NASA’s Space Program during the Space Race. Mary is an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy works as an informal supervisor of the Computing Department, although she does not receive the pay or recognition of a supervisor. Katherine, who “can handle any numbers you put in front of her”, is assigned to the Space Task Group, where she is the only black woman on the team. Her job is to calculate the launch and landing coordinates for John Glenn’s orbit, a type of math that had yet to be invented. These women are incredibly smart, and the film makes that clear; its main focus is their groundbreaking work at NASA. (I’m an English major and didn’t understand any of the math at all, but it was obviously extremely difficult). But beyond this, it is also a film about close friendship, and the characters that Henson, Spencer, and Monáe create fit together beautifully as the central trio in the film.

          Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary possess a sass and quick wit together that is highly entertaining. For example, the film opens with Dorothy’s car, a shocking teal Chevy convertible, broken down on the side of the road while the women are on their way to work. Mary complains, “We’re all gonna wind up unemployed riding around in this pile of junk.” Dorothy responds drily, “You’re welcome to walk the sixteen miles.” Katherine adds, “Or ride in the back of the bus.” When a policeman pulls up, the women are immediately on their guard. Their identification proves that they work at NASA, and the policeman responds, “NASA! I had no idea they hired…” Pause. Mary responds, “There’s quite a few women working in the space program.” The policeman is impressed by their work at NASA and offers to give them an escort so they’re not late. As they speed down the road, Mary declares, “Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down a highway in 1961… That is a God-ordained miracle!”

          This scene exemplifies much of the film. Underlying the groundbreaking mathematical work these women are doing, racism and sexism endure. However, the women face these hardships with dogged determinism and sassy cynicism, as does the film. For instance, whenever Johnson needs to use the bathroom, she must run half a mile, in heels and carrying piles of calculations so that she can work even while on the toilet, to get to the only building that has a “colored ladies restroom”. After watching this saga occur multiple times, as an audience member, I was almost thinking “This again?” But yes, of course, this again, because that’s what she must do to use the bathroom, and that’s the point. It becomes mundane and almost absurd after a while, but it is still something Katherine has to undergo daily. That same mindset is how both the characters, and the film as a whole, approach racism. In addition to the graceful way in which the film grapples with such issues, it features an inspiring story with a superb cast that make it well worth watching.

– Jane Vaughan, 2017

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