“Hidden Figures” is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three brilliant African-American women who worked behind the scenes in the early years of NASA development and its early goal of putting a man into outer space.
My Review: Running approximately 2 hours, “Hidden Figures” is overall a behind the scene revisiting of the politics of American life in the early 1960s. In one respect it shows the political promise of a new generation of Americans of looking to achieve a new kind of greatness as promised by a new, young and vibrant President Kennedy to one day “landing a man on the moon and returning him safety to earth". The other part of this political story was the dynamic of the continued institutional ugliness of racism in America, along with shocking (by today standards) displays of blatant repressive misogyny and sexism.
“Hidden Figures” as a film is 50 percent about the American space program and the other 50% percent about the burgeoning American civil rights movement for social justice. But when examined much closer, particular through the prism of the very lives of these key characters in the film, you discover they are like most Americans whether Black or White. Every day working people just trying to do something right; something good for their country and their families. And with that the overall arc of the film eventually gets to the best virtues of both the space program and the racial justice issues then that makes “Hidden Figures” a feel good story. A story that offers up more positives about personal human determination and personal fortitude to achieve greatness. A story that is more celebratory than persecution of the perpetual self-inflicted wound of racism, even when individual lives were at stake.
Hidden Figures is not without some minor hiccups along the way, mostly from what I can see came from the Directors execution of the film. One thing I did not particularly like (for example) was when Katherine G. Johnson who was promoted to working with “White engineers” at the NASA Langley Facility could not use the bathroom in the same building. Her solution to this problem was shot with a bit of humor as we see her running in high heels with light airy music being played in the background. There was nothing amusing about her needs to use a bathroom or her strategy to avoid “making any trouble” in the male dominated office.
Also, there are subplots involving a library, a coffee pot and the state of Virginia segregation laws in the area of education could have been shot and executed better than the seemingly clichéd melodramatic way it came across in the film. But again these are only my minor problems of the film.
The cast is extremely well cast, especially Kevin Costner who played NASA Director Al Harrison. His role in some measure was the physical embodiment of the consciousness of a new America slowly coming to its senses of stop sticking itself in the eye when it comes to matters of race, especially if we were to ever having any hope of achieving any real progress in American life. In addition Taraji P. Henson and singer Janelle Monáe both turn very impressive performance of women of great strength, great intelligence, femininity and great determination.
I have seen recently two true stories about race and social progress in early 1960’s. The first was ‘Loving“, about a couple who challenged their state’s law against interracial marriage and now “Hidden Figures”. Both are about people who were never well known but in their attempt to live the American dream like anyone else changed the shape of American society in regards to social justice in incalculable and immeasurable ways. Both films focused on an era that showed the quiet move to justice by good people to “not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream (MLK quote)”.
“Hidden Figures” will remind you, shock you and maybe even out raged you on how destructive the persistent practice of racism was and can be on people and the nation as whole. But what will shine through above all about this film is the beautiful look at ordinary people without grand titles or portfolios who had the fortitude to stand up every moment – each day – their entire loves for what is right.
Finally, one of the film’s moments I will deliberately spoil, only because it involves the late Senator and Astronaut John Glenn whose story is featured prominently in the film. Did not know him, but from a far I sensed even from my child hood, he was an extraordinary man of great qualities.
In a scene when the Mercury 7 astronaut arrived for a press conference before the first launch of a manned Redstone rocket with Alan Shepard, you see Glenn meeting the staff at Langley in an open air receiving line. One section was designated for the White NASA Staff and the other section for the Black NASA Staff. As the Astronauts were being guided into a building, only Glenn continued moving down the line to shake all of the hands including the black employees to thank them for their hard work to the space program. With nothing but that big smile of his and his exuding genuine warmth and affection you saw a truly kind and decent gesture by an authentically decent man.