Review: ‘Hidden Figures’ Launches Into Emotional Heights
Movies| | By Robin Milling
The best kept secret in our nation’s history is wonderfully revealed in Hidden Figures. The incredible untold true story of three African-American women working at NASA takes place during the most volatile time in America where segregation was practiced and equal rights seemed about as unattainable as going to the moon. Each of these women excel in their respective career paths, but find themselves having to prove their worth amongst a workplace dominated by white males.
Taraji P. Henson portrays Katherine G. Johnson, a math savant who is hired by NASA for her gift for analytical geometry. Johnson performed the calculations that ultimately sent astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s and to the moon in 1969. Henson gives a fully realized and layered performance as Johnson, a widowed mother of three girls. Any thought of the corrupt character Cookie from Empire — which Henson deemed a stereotype — quickly crumbles. It is unnerving to watch her running in high heels clear across the NASA facility from the East Computing Room for ‘whites’ to reach the bathroom for ‘coloreds only’ almost a half mile away. Henson is fearless in scenes where she confronts her white male co-workers — particularly her nemesis Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) — about their blatant racism towards her. After she uses the coffee pot, it is quickly labeled ‘colored.’
One forgets that segregation was common place at the time, but it is still disconcerting to see decades later.
Kevin Costner is perfect as Al Harrison, the staunch director of the Space Test Group who champions Johnson’s aptitude for figuring out the launching and landing numbers — clearing a path for her success in the space race. In a highly emotional moment, he marches to the ‘colored only’ ladies bathroom and wrenches the sign down declaring, “Here at NASA, we all pay the same color.”
Octavia Spencer is powerful as Dorothy Vaughan, head of the segregated West Area Computing Unit comprised of all black female mathematicians. Spencer has her victorious moment as Vaughan when she leads her charge into the IBM room from West to East, ultimately breaking the color barrier at NASA. Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson is stalwart in her determination to be an engineer. After years in the computing pool, she receives an offer to work for engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) testing the capsule’s resistance to winds approaching twice the speed of sound. The catch – trainees had to take courses only offered at the all-white high school. Monae is fierce in the scene where she appears before the judge to argue her plea.
Hidden Figures is superbly directed by Theodore Melfi, who also shares screenwriting with Allison Schroeder. At just the right moments, Melfi juxtaposes the grainy black and white televised footage of Cape Canaveral and John F. Kennedy’s stirring speech about man’s quest for the moon. There are inspiring scenes such as astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), then a marine corp pilot, making a bee-line to the three ladies who made his first successful mission into space happen. He personally thanks them before suiting up to take off in Friendship 7 — the first manned orbital mission of the United States.
Hidden Figures is a powerful reminder of a time when the impossible was achieved. While the film pays close attention to historical detail and even educates, it lifts off in dramatic ways that make your heart soar.