MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: 20th Century Fox
Directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer.
The double entendre of this film’s title is well-intentioned, for Hidden Figures tells the true story of three female mathematicians who were not only able to come up with solutions that eluded their male counterparts but also had to make their way in a field that relegated black women to their “own” area at NASA and also underestimated their gifts.
Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were good friends who all made their way to the space program during the time of its true birth. In 1957 Russia succeeded in launching Sputnik as the first satellite placed into earth orbit. Russia followed that accomplishment by sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin around the world in a singular orbit in 1961. President John F. Kennedy did not want the United States to keep falling behind and NASA was commissioned to keep things moving toward a space launch in which an American would be able to orbit the world many times over. But rockets kept exploding and rocket design depended upon good math. NASA was about to install its first IBM computer and no one quite knew how these things worked.
Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson would eventually become a significant part of the solution, but there was much to overcome. Johnson was brilliant enough to join the team of scientists on the main campus, but she was treated with disregard from her immediate supervisor (Jim Parsons) and had to walk over half a mile each way to use the “colored women” restroom. Vaughn was able to organize and orchestrate a team of mathematicians but was denied the title of supervisor; she was interested and willing to learn the new computer language of FORTRAN but forced to stealing a book on the topic from a library section she was not allowed to enter as a black woman. Jackson (Monae) is qualified to advance as an engineer but is denied the opportunity to take the coursework required due to Jim Crow laws. But these women will not be deterred. You can count on it.
There are nevertheless people who support and help to make a way for them, including Al Harrison (a very good Kevin Costner), the crusty and demanding head of the department who is willing to recognize talent above all else and astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who is colorblind when it comes to appreciating the persons who will be ultimately responsible for his safety.
The film includes a mild romantic subplot and some nice family moments sprinkled into the movie. Most of all, we have three wonderful lead actors who bring vitality and energy to the screen. There’s real joy and life to these women and they keep you engaged all the way. There is no subtlety to the film’s message against prejudice, which makes it a good choice for conversations between parents and children. The church is presented in a positive way, as well (Gotta love those church picnics!).
Great story, great actors, and a still-timely message add up to a crowd-pleasing movie for all ages. I can’t hide my endorsement for Hidden Figures.
Five halos: An inspiring film about perseverance and patience overcoming prejudice and setbacks.
One pitchfork: Racism and sexism, par for the course in the early 1960s.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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