Synopsis – Based on a true story. A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.
My Take – Films based on historical events are quite difficult to make, as you never have an idea how much of the material used is true and what has been padded for dramatic purposes. Most films are just a collection of stories put together with no real narrative. Other times they attempt to cram as much information in as possible, regardless of its relevance. Not knowing what to expect, I decided to check this film out, because every once in a while, there is a biographical drama that packs a powerful socio-political message within a simple but brilliant story that is told incredibly successfully. Contrary to what some might think this film is not a documentary and should not be viewed as such as this Theodore Melfi directed film is storytelling at its finest. I’ve witnessed in past historical dramas of where racism included violence, but that is not the case regarding this film. Rather it focused more on how it was overcome in everyday life, especially the workplace. Director Theodore Melfi‘s incredible film depicts the lives and careers of three African-American women whose work was extremely influential in the early days of NASA’s Mercury, Atlas, and Apollo missions will hit close to home for many. In all likelihood, there may not have been successful launches, orbits, and landings if it weren’t for these brave women who refused to back down and take the back seat to white men and women at a time that even government buildings still segregated restrooms, water fountains, and “community” coffee pots. This woman known as ‘Colored Computers’ would manually check and cross-check the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program. In just over two hours, this film hits all of the emotional notes perfectly without becoming maudlin or preachy. It is important to learn the personal stories of those who overcame the racism and sexism that dominated our society in the 1950s and early 60s. These women had to fight every step of the way to achieve what they were fully capable of doing and this film honors their legacy. This is a film that should have been released many years ago, how stories like this one go untold, is bewildering.
Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the story follows Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three African-American women whose talents with numbers brought them together to work on the space program at NASA. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. While, Katherine is a math prodigy, who has just been promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work. The Space Task Group are a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work, a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. At home, the single mother of three, Katherine is slowly being pursued by a decorated soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). While, Mary has a filed a petition in court for the right to attend an all white college that offers the engineering courses required for her certification to claim her engineering position in NASA despite the objection of her husband Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge). Meanwhile Dorothy has been constantly head-butting with her condescending & maybe racist supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) to promote her role as a supervisor. Despite segregation still circulating at the time, each of them proved that no matter what color they were, it’s their intellect and willpower that got them through each obstacle of the day and also helped make history for astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) to be the first American astronaut to completely orbit the Earth. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society, it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus. The premise of the film with brilliant ladies marginalized until they direct their individual fates is an apt metaphor for oppressed and undervalued people. With an interesting balance of wit and drama, I found its tribulations to be the main focus. It was very jarring to see that despite the characters’ extensive knowledge in their work and upon receiving their own respective degrees in their studies; it’s still looked down upon by the self- righteous higher-ups. At the same time, civil unrest was rising in the towns. This is the time of Martin Luther King’s rise to prominence. It’s a time just before the rise of militant civil rights groups. It’s a time when resistance to segregation and discrimination was still civil, but as the film shows, that resistance was beginning to firm up and become widespread. This is the second film from writer-director Theodore Melfi (after the Bill Murray vehicle St Vincent a few years ago). Here he brings the larger than life (yet true) story of how these three ladies ended up playing an important, if not critical role, in the space race.
The ‘running joke’ in the film is that Katherine disappears time and again to run to the “Colored Ladies Room” which is 1/2 mile away from the Space Task Group. When one day confronted about her long absences by the agency’s head, she boils over in emotion and anger and humiliation when she explains why (truly a chilling moment in the film). Not long thereafter, the agency’s head does away with the segregated bathrooms, claiming “Here at NASA, we’re all the same color!” In recent years, Hollywood has caught much flak when it produces films that show whites advancing black civil rights. ‘Mississippi Burning’ was widely criticized for telling the true story of white contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Critics demanded films that depicted blacks as heroes and whites as bad guys. The historical reality is, though, that without white allies, Civil Rights would have been dead in the water. The film also deals not just with their work at NASA but also the challenges they face in their personal lives, both as friends and individually as wives and parents. One thing that struck me is that this is a film about triumph. Every story they told had a happily ever after. But that doesn’t mean that it was without drama. The filmmakers were careful not to turn the film into a statement, something that could have easily been done, and instead just used the facts of the time to move the story forward. The tension felt because of racism and sexism was real. The narrative is powerful in showing the shocking ignorance and mean-spirited nature of living in a segregated society. We should also feel the frustration and disgust of knowing how much bigotry still exists in our society and the harm it continues to cause us all. We can feel the hope found in the progress made as long as we realize how far we have still yet to go on this journey. This entertaining drama also deals with the colossal emergence of computers, in this case giant mainframe IBMS, which threaten not only Russian competitors but also the jobs of the brilliant ladies. Although this truly is a powerful film with a beautiful message that is just as relevant today as it would have been 50 years ago, it never quite hits the mark that I had hoped it would. Suffice it to say, there are some remarkable scenes with powerful speeches, but the film never quite hits that emotional mark as intensely as it should. I realize that some of what transpired in the Space Task room, wind tunnels, and courtroom may have been taken from transcripts for authenticity, as this is a film, I feel that there should have been more of a dramatic license taken out to increase the emotional impact of the film. It certainly has a moderately high emotional impact, but there was definitely the potential to take it up several more degrees. The acting is fabulous! The superb cast is lead by Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, who are exceptional and nomination worthy. Janelle Monáe gives an inspiring performance as she lets her light shine to portray moments of glory and triumph. Mahershala Ali & Aldis Hodge are terrific here. Kirsten Dunst turns in a surprisingly solid performance as a hardened by-the-book supervisor, and Kevin Costner thankfully melts believably into his role as chief of the space program. Glen Powell is very likable. However, Jim Parsons‘ portrayal of an overtly racist engineer is sadly wooden, and is the only weak spot in an otherwise strong ensemble. On the whole, ‘Hidden Figures’ is an absolutely fantastic film with powerful performances, excellent writing, meticulous direction, and fantastic score that make this feature well worth viewing on many levels.
Directed – Theodore Melfi
Rated – PG
Run Time – 127 minutes