Classic Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Comedy, Drama
Tags: , ,

hidden figures

Katherine Coleman(Lidya Jewett) had a gift for calculating numbers from a very early age.  By 1961, Katherine Goble was a widowed mother of three working as a human computer at NASA.  Goble works with two other African-American ladies at NASA in the segregated calculations department. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) wanted to be a supervisor in the segregated calculations department, but is being held back by Vivian Mitchell. (Kirsten Dunst)  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae ) strived to be an engineer, but that was next to impossible for an African American woman at the time. The U.S. is falling behind in the space race, the Soviets have already sent a satellite, Sputnik into orbit and a manned flight with Yuri Gregarin followed shortly thereafter.

Katherine’s knowledge of analytical geometry fit NASA’s needs and her skill with numbers gets her transferred to the Guidance and Control Division of NASA in Langley Virginia, where she started calculating trajectories for Alan Sheppard’s manned attempt into space.  Mary Jackson is also transferred to a wind tunnel project under Karl Zelliinski (Olek Krupa) who encourages Mary to go to night school, which she does, after convincing a judge that she should be the first African American woman in Virginia to attend a white only school.  Dorothy Vaughn realizes that human calculators will soon be obsolete because NASA invests in an IBM computer.  She studies Fortran, and tries to make herself invaluable to NASA, but the supervisor’s job still eludes her.  Does Katherine Johnson finish the calculations for Alan Sheppard?  Does Mary Jackson become an engineer? Does Dorothy Vaughn get her supervisory position?

Hidden Figures richly deserves all the plaudits it has received.  I did not know about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson or Dorothy Vaughn before this movie, and so this movie is worth watching for the educational value alone, add in the historical significance of the space race with the Soviets, the Civil Rights significance of three African American women smashing the racial and gender barriers of the time, and this is a movie that Hollywood should try to emulate again and again, rather than the tiresome superhero reboots, and sequels and prequels .  This is not just a movie for African Americans, or women, this is a story that every man woman and child worldwide should watch and enjoy. These women succeeded because of hard work and knowledge in math and science.  Imagine how much farther the US would be if everyone in America took an interest in math and science, like these women did. Imagine how many more people would have taken an interest in math and science if this movie was made earlier.  Hidden Figures manages to be funny and touching and work in a romance between Katherine and an Army colonel. Sure it makes up some characters and changes some names, but it gets the big points right in telling this important story.

The acting is superb, especially by the three lead actresses.  Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as Katherine Johnson, she underplays her role well, she has one dramatic confrontation and plays that scene extremely well.  Octavia Spencer was also outstanding as Dorothy Vaughn, she was much better in this than in The Help.  Then again, this is a much more substantial and serious role than the Help.  She conveyed an authority figure well, and didn’t apologize for feeling passed over. Janelle Monae, who made her name as a singer, suddenly finds herself in two of the most acclaimed movies of the year.  And she is very good in both.  Her role was bigger here, she was funny, outspoken, and delivered her lines with conviction, unlike most singers who try to act.  Even Kevin Costner was tolerable in this flick, he is so incredibly bad in most of the roles he plays, he did a good job of blending in in this movie.  Jim Parsons is danger of being typecast as the irritating nerdy know-it-al.  He essentially played a version of his Sheldon character.

The direction is very good, the director doesn’t spend a lot of time on Katherine’s childhood and gets right into the heart of the story in a few scenes.  The pacing is excellent, two hours just fly by.  His other film St Vincent wasn’t nearly as good as this, but he made the rocket scenes look realistic, and made good use of archival footage.

Hidden Figures:  Hollywood figures out how to make a great film.


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