Monday, January 16, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures (2016) Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner,  Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Screenplay by Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi. Based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Produced by Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi. Run Time: 127 minutes. USA Biography, History

It is not often that a film can be as effective as Hidden Figures is. Telling the real-life stories of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her close friends, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Despite their intelligence, these women are held back by the times they lived in. Not only are they working in a male-dominant industry, aerospace, but they are also Black in a time of racial segregation in the South. They work at NASA, which at the time was based in Langley, Virginia.

The three actresses and the women they depict from left to right: Taraji P. Henson plays  Katherine
Goble Johnson; Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson; and Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan.

But despite the cards being stacked against them, these women rise through the ranks at NASA, where they become not only barrier breakers, but they also become valued members of the team that would send the first seven American astronauts into space and eventually send a man to the moon. These were definitely both exciting and turbulent times in America, both of which are addressed in the film.

While the film shows these women as victims of prejudice, they don’t stay victims for too long. Not only does Katherine show her worth to Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group (Kevin Costner), and his assistant, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), but with the encouragement of NASA engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) and her own gumption, Jackson gets into classes she needs at an all-White school to get an Engineering degree.

Meanwhile, Vaughan, who is under-appreciated by her own supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), manages to save the women in her group by getting in on the ground floor of computer programming. These are very inspiring stories of women who are finally getting the recognition they deserve for their duty to country.

While their work is important, the film gives about equal time to their personal lives with church and family playing large roles. Additionally, Katherine, a widow with three children, meets and marries Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a former National Guardsman.

The women rely on each other as well as their families to get through the hard times at work.

Everyone in the cast is excellent and the film does a very good job of capturing the moment in time. Things were changing, but too slowly. The women’s contributions and importance led to the breaking of barriers at NASA. It was eye-opening to see how segregated the operation was, not only by color but also by sex. More than once, Stafford tells Katherine that it is not the color barrier she’s breaking, but that women are not allowed in some of the meetings she wants to attend.

Katherine Johnson stands out in more ways than one surrounded by her co-workers at NASA.

With the earliest Mercury launches as the backdrop, it was nice to see the depiction of John Glenn (Glen Powell). The last time I’d seen him depicted as part of the story of America in space, The Right Stuff (1983), I think he was depicted as a bit of a goody-two-shoes. Here he gets depicted more as someone who goes out of his way to not only acknowledge these women’s contributions but also relies on Katherine’s calculations before he will let the launch of Friendship Seven go forward.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) is depicted as more than a goody-two-shoes in Hidden Figures.

This is really a very involving film. The audience can get caught up with the uncertainty of space travel, even though we know how the Mercury story ultimately ends. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but at the end of the screening, the audience broke out in applause. If you don’t find yourself drawn into the movie, then there is really something wrong with you.

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