Hidden Figures, is the true story of the black female mathematicians and scientists that were instrumental in the successful launch of Friendship 7, the first successful US manned orbit of the earth in 1962. It was the height of the space race, and NASA was aggressively competing with the Russians. It was a huge operation based in Langley Virginia and there was a handful of black women working on the project. The film focuses on three of them, Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer). Although they are respected in their field, they face tremendous obstacles and prejudice not only because of their race, but because they are women. This is exacerbated by working and living in Virginia, which was a legally segregated state at the time.
This is such a great inspirational true story that I cannot believe it hasn’t already been told on film. When the film begins all three women are working at NASA in the West Area as Computers, with Dorothy as an informal supervisor of them. She is frustrated as she cannot seem to get promoted to official supervisor, despite doing a great job. Mary is an aspiring engineer, but despite the fact she has a bachelor’s degree that should qualify her, NASA imposes additional training for her and other employees to work as engineers at the center. Unfortunately courses for this additional training are only taught at a local high school (as continuing Ed courses) and the school happens to be segregated and Mary, a woman of color, isn’t allowed to attend. Katharine, known for her brilliant mathematics is promoted to be part of the launch team, where she is the only black woman and has to deal with a jealous male colleague Paul Stafford, played by Jim Parsons, and a tough, enigmatic boss played by Kevin Costner. She too is faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, with perhaps the biggest one a half mile walk, each way, to use a “colored bathroom.”
Hidden Figures is a sleeper hit, and has already had 12 days at the number one spot at the box office and it has tripled its budget in domestic box office. This is an antithesis to the belief that movies starring women don’t make money. It has been my research and experience that although women driven films may not make superhero movie money, they actually have a better ROI because they cost a lot less to produce. Hidden Figures’ appeal and box office power can not only be attributed to its great story, but to its great acting and no nonsense execution. Henson is great as usual, and her smashing turn here as the smartest person in the room who can never be recognized for it, is astonishing. A strong independent career widow, who is raising three children with the help of her mother, she never plays the victim or sad sack. Spencer brings vitality, dignity and strength to a woman who cannot get the recognition or promotion she deserves. That doesn’t stop her from showing initiative and ambitiously and secretly tackling the new IBM computer system that is supposed to process all the data instead of employees doing it manually. She has been duly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Monae who plays down her glamorous looks and image and rolls up her sleeves as a woman who deserves the same opportunities as male engineers is equally credible and impressive.
The prejudice, segregation and oppression is presented as a matter of fact situation and normalcy. There is little band standing and preachings and when there is an outburst—a declaration of how frustrating the circumstances are for black women, it is earned and emotionally moving. Hidden Figures, written by Alison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) and directed by Melfi, is an immensely satisfying experience that celebrates unsung heroes who clearly deserve it. It is extremely well acted and has terrific characters to root for. It is also nominated for best picture and best screenplay and the best ensemble cast at the SAG AWARDS. SEE IT!