Hidden Figures

In the field of astronomy the use of human computers, people who would power through the mathematical calculations of a particular problem, was routine since the eighteenth century.  A century later, women began to fill these roles.  Back then this was as far as they could advance even though several of them made significant contributions.  Their male bosses almost always took the credit.

When NASA, in the wake of the Soviets launching Sputnik, was tasked with getting a man into space they continued the practice.  Many of the women they used were African American.  Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is the story of three such women.

Katherine Goble/Johnson (she gets married during the story,) played by Taraji P. Henson is the main focus.  From an early age she shows signs of being a prodigy in math, especially geometry.  This gets her the job at NASA.  When it starts taking too long to get the new IBM mainframe computers online, NASA director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner (who is actually a composite of several figures at NASA at the time) desperately needs a human computer to check the math of the engineers on his team.  Because of her facility with geometry, Katherine is recruited for the position and quickly becomes indispensable, despite the reluctance of the team to accept her.  Henson does a great job of depicting a woman, perfectly aware of her precarious position among the white men on her team but who is nonetheless determined to succeed.  When Harrison demands to know why she is away from her desk for forty minutes a day, she angrily informs him that there is no colored women’s bathroom in the building and that she has to walk a half mile to use one.  She also lets out her resentment on a number of other things as well, including a small coffee pot labeled “colored” that showed up on the morning after she got herself a cup from the communal urn.  It’s a scene with a lot of dramatic fireworks and Henson handles it perfectly.

Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan as a slightly older and more responsible woman, acting as the supervisor of the pool of computers but not getting the title or the pay.  Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is the youngest and has the hardest time keeping her mouth shut in the face of white prejudice.  But she’s smart and ambitious.  She wants to be an engineer and she doggedly pursues the dream despite the obstacles NASA and state of Virginia put in her way.  This is Monae’s second great movie performance this year; the first being in Moonlight.

All three of these women push the system and make it give them the opportunities that they deserve.  They take their cues from the civil rights struggle going on around them and speak up about the unfairness and indignity that makes up their lives.  The film is very good at showing these with plenty of shots of frowning faces staring at the three main characters.

Hidden Figures is a very traditional presentation of the classic underdog overcoming great odds story, a story we never tire of.  Director Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, doesn’t give us any cinematic tricks or narrative devices.  This story doesn’t need any.  The filmmakers just get out of the way and let it unfold.

After watching this and doing a little research in the topic, I can’t help but think about all the people throughout history who could have contributed so much to society but couldn’t because of their gender or their ethnicity.  What a terrible waste.


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