Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hidden Figures: An Entertaining, Emotional Journey With Important New Lessons

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Sometimes a film is good because it's entertaining. Sometimes because it strikes an emotional chord. And sometimes because it teaches us important new lessons. Some films are good for all those reasons, and Hidden Figures is one of them.

Hidden Figures is historical fiction based very closely on fact. It's the story of a group of Black women, who served as human computers at the dawn of the electric computer age, and who worked at NASA at the dawn of the manned space program. It focuses particularly on three women who would become heroes in helping America launch the first men into space during the race for space dominance against the Soviet Union.

The scientists at NASA were all White males. They were top physicists and engineers in their fields, self-assured, and like any group of prima donas, unappreciative of help checking their work. But their work wasn't successfully launching rockets. The Soviets were beating the Americans at meeting milestones launching rockets, and the pressure was growing for America meet their pace if not surpass it.

In another building quite far away from where the scientists worked was an office for "Colored" workers -- Black women. They were known as "computers", although not the kind we're used to thinking of today. The kind we think of today were just in the beginning stages of development. Humans did the computing, the data processing and math -- often higher mathematics -- required to solve NASA's complex science challenges. There weren't White workers with the skills and talents to solve NASA's computing problems, but NASA increasingly learned that there were Black workers who could. And despite the color barriers of the time -- this takes place in the early 1960's -- these three Black women rose to the occasion to help lift NASA rockets off the ground, into orbit, with men on board, and safely back to the ground.

Hidden Figures is the uplifting story of these women, especially Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), who struggled through bigotry, racism, and sexism, to crack the race and sex ceilings at NASA and help take America safely and successfully into space, finally to surpass the Soviets in the frontiers of space exploration. In the process, they would discover new math formulas, create new engineering solutions, and bring NASA into the modern computer age. This is an entertaining, emotional, life-lessons journey that will warm your heart and have you rooting for every underdog with a brilliant mind.

The acting performances are flawless, from Spencer, Henson, and Monae, who play not just smart women seeking the opportunity to fulfill their natural intellectual talents, but also as mothers and daughters and wives trying to live normal, everyday lives in 1960's America; to Kevin Costner, who plays the beleaguered NASA administrator under pressure to stave off the Soviet space threat and recognizes the equally damaging threat of bigotry and racism; to Kirsten Dunst, who plays the at first dismissive White talent-pool manager that comes to appreciate people for who they are, not who they appear to be; to Jim Parsons, far from his TV role as the brilliant but clueless Sheldon Cooper but now as a snobbish smart physicist who reluctantly turns his work over to a "Colored" woman to check his math and who is finally won over by Johnson's brilliance. Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge put in strong supporting performances as well.

There is much more about this film to admire as well. Set decoration is spot on for the era. Hair style and costume design are exemplary. The feel of the times fits perfectly, too, as anyone who lived in those times can attest. The script is well written and executed, bringing in humor not just to be funny but to make a point. The politics of the film isn't there to make a point but to make sense in the story line.

Hidden Figures was Oscar nominated for a reason. It is a well made film. Everything comes together with brilliance to finally tell the story of unsung American heroes of the space race, a race we could not have won without them. Bravo!

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