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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Very rarely do you come across a film that has such an important story to be told, and tells it well. Hidden Figures is a captivating and compelling story of three pioneering women working at NASA during the space race of the 1960s. The film was adapted from a book of the same title written by Margot Lee Shetterly based on the true story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The film shows how they surpassed gender and racial boundaries to succeed in putting the first Americans into space. And while many biopics tend to be either dull, inaccurate, or exaggerated, Hidden Figures avoids all of that and gives movie-goers an honest and authentic film about the lives of these remarkable and hidden figures.

Katherine Johnson, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015, was just one of dozens of mathematically talented black women recruited to work as “human computers” at the Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in the 1940s and ’50s. They were so named because before machines came along, they crunched the numbers necessary for figuring out wind tunnel resistance, or rocket trajectories, or safe reentry angles. In fact, all of Langley’s hundreds of “human computers,” whether black or white, were women.  Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, a computer turned engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African-American supervisor and computer programmer, all have extraordinary stories of triumph, struggle, and perserverence. While the film highlights each of their stories, Johnson’s is the primary narrative.

Hidden Figures is getting attention now as another contender in the race for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughn) has been nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. The film has also been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. What I found interesting about this was that Taraji P. Henson did not get nominated for any awards. She gave a stellar performance in this film. There were two poignant and emotional moments in which she really shone as an actor. I thought that while Spencer gave a solid performance, it was not Oscar-worthy especially in comparison to her performance in The Help. Hensen and Monáe gave the stronger performances, and when I heard the nominations I was a bit surprised.

Another strong point in the film’s favor was its authenticity as a period piece. In a film about the struggle of three African-American women trying to succeed during the 60s, the film had to tread a careful line in the depiction of race-relations and the daily struggles these people had to face. I believe that the film did that extraordinarily well. It did not feel preachy, exaggerated, or underplayed. There are dramatic and intense moments that are balanced by quiet and subtle moments, where these characters deal with racism and segregation. The film also centers on the tension felt during the space race as the US tries to beat Russia to be the first on the moon. That tension is felt throughout the film and provides a grounding backdrop to the story.

Of the characters in this film, only Johnson is still alive today. Jackson died in 2005, while Vaughan passed away in 2008. In life, they never got the recognition they deserved. But this recent exposure will hopefully land them in more history books – just as we can hope their example will motivate more young women to enter STEM programs. It seems the word is spreading fast about this movie. As of January 31, it has made $106,800,960 domestically. Actors Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Jim Parsons have bought out theaters and provided free screenings, in order to make it possible for low-income populations to go and see it.  This remarkable film shines light on an important and unrecognized part of US history:  I certainly never learned about any of this, nor about these ground-breaking women, in any of my history classes.  Theirs is such an important story, and it needed to be told.  I hope that if more people go and support this film, these hidden figures will not be hidden for much longer.

8.5/10 (my score)

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