Without question,is one of the year’s most inspiring stories, and it really is remarkable that most people probably haven’t heard of the towering achievement by several African American women in providing key mathematical data for the successful launch of America’s space program in the early 60’s. Thanks to this engrossing and beautifully told story these women will be “Hidden Figures” no more in the very appropriately titled Hidden Figures, a 100% true story about the heroes you didn’t know about, but they were heroes nonetheless.
Set in 1961 around the proposed launch into space of John Glenn, who ironically just died last week at the age of 95, this film centers on the recruitment of a number of women, mostly African American, who provided remarkable mathematical skills that were indispensable to the success of the NASA program.
At the heart of this, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi (with Allison Schroeder) focuses specifically on three of those women, Katherine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, a true whiz at numbers but doesn’t always get the credit for that, Dorothy Vaughn played by newly minted Golden Globe nominee Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson portrayed by pop star Janelle Monae. They are friends and colleagues, but also victims of the segregation that existed in those times. A particularly powerful scene comes midway through when Johnson confronts her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who seemed unaware that there were regular bathrooms, and then “colored” bathrooms, sometimes the latter located in other buildings that may be a mile away. The film shows the hardships of what it was like in those times for African Americans, and also women, in a male dominated world. But, as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch) ,the portrait it paints is inspiring when you see the contributions these women made despite the struggles they had to endure. Johnson’s (who is still living at age 98) personal life is also explored here with the budding romance the single mother has with a new man in her life (Mahershala Ali).
Hidden Figures, which could be described as sort of The Help meets The Right Stuff, sports a wonderful supporting cast that also includes not-always-sympathetic co-workers played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, but there are no one dimensional villainy types here. Costner is particularly good as the no nonsense, but sympathetic man who runs the NASA operation and has his eyes opened along the way to what these remarkable women really contribute to the missions. Spencer and Monae are wonderful, but the film really belongs to Henson who is simply superb in every way, a completely different character than we see her play as Cookie on Empire. She infuses this role with such a quiet dignity and determination that is a joy to watch. She does Katherine Johnson proud. Another big plus in the film are the Pharrell Williams songs which are weaved in and out of the storyline and actually become part of the story themselves. The end credit tune, “I See A Victory” is truly rousing.
Producers of Hidden Figures are Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, and Williams. 20th Century Fox is launching Oscar qualifying runs on Christmas Day, then going wide on January 6th.
Do you plan to see Hidden Figures? Let us know what you think.