Thursday, March 2, 2017

Films of 2016: "Hidden Figures"


About twenty minutes into viewing Hidden Figures (the remarkable true story of female African-American mathematicians at NASA in the Fifties and Sixties), I realized the meaning of the film's title, as well as how effectively this film worked. It refers to unseen (and overlooked) elements that went into the success of the space program, and in subsequent missions following astronaut John Glenn's successful job in orbiting the earth in 1962. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story vaguely recalls the Cold War era, as the Russians launch Sputnik into space, leaving America with attempts to get astronauts there as well. On earth, during the Civil Rights era, tensions between White and African-American individuals were as relevant as they could be. The same goes for NASA, where there are buildings (as well as restrooms) for white individuals and for colored individuals, referred to as "computers" for their math skills. One of these individuals is Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson), who showed promising skills and knowledge in while in sixth grade. She's assigned to Space Task Group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), to figure out "math that doesn't yet exist" to send a rocket into space with an astronaut in it.

Her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (the always commanding Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), work through agendas and setbacks of their own. There's a great scene where Mary and a fellow scientist (a Jewish man) discuss being in such a work environment despite their backgrounds.

"I'm just a Negro woman, sir."
"And I'm a Polish Jew who's parents were killed in a concentration camp. I guess we are both living the impossible."

The title also refers to other ways said individuals dealt with or overcame such issues. Instead of using marches or protest speeches, these women used their skill, wits, and determination. An incredible and worthy message in this day and age.

The real-life Figures (pictured in black-and-white), and their on-screen doppelgängers (l-r): Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)

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