A Crucial History Lesson Learned in ‘Hidden Figures’
Briefly touched upon in school curriculum, there are certain individuals from the Space Race who are household names. We all know who Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Alan Shepard. But, how many actually know crucial players such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson? Hidden Figures sheds more light on these three African-American mathematicians and engineers.
Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Jackson (Janelle Monáe) worked at NASA during the 1960’s. As we know from history, this was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and segregation was commonplace. While brilliant, these three friends worked in the segregated West Area Computers division at Langley. In fact, they’re referred to as computers, which in a contemporary sense refers to the machines rather than someone who does the actual task.
The trio is broken up, given new assignments. Johnson, a geometrist, is promoted upstairs to assist in the Space Task Group. Vaughan remains downstairs as an unofficial supervisor of the segregated women. Kirsten Dunst plays her supervisor, whose unwilling to make the position official. It’s nothing personal, just a result of the times. Monáe makes little progress towards her advancement towards being an engineer. She has the fight with the system to enter an all-white high school to finish her classes.
For St. Vincent director, Theodore Melfi, it’s clearly a balancing act to capture the journeys of these three women. Johnson’s arc is front-and-center as her role calculating trajectories is extremely crucial to the Freedom 7 and Friendship 7 missions. Her presence with the other acclaimed mathematicians upstairs shakes up the entire dynamic at Langley. From the get-go, there is a great amount of tension between Johnson and her male, white co-workers. She’s forced to go to the bathroom a half-mile away and even is forced to use a secondhand coffee pot. It’s not cut-and-dry racism, albeit more layered once again because of the era.
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The screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder takes a more feel-good, triumphant approach to the narrative. Riding the line of a by-the-numbers bio-pic, Hidden Figures utilizes a more constricted approach, highlighting the happenings at NASA. Granted there are occasions when race is addressed on a national scale, but it’s treated rather as an undercurrent. Much of that transfers from the source material written by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Kevin Costner heads the Space Task Group as Al Harrison, one of the few people willing to give Johnson an opportunity. Costner’s certainly found his niche as a supporting character in recent years. Here, he’s rewarded with a basic, yet impactful role. Jim Parsons butts heads with Johnson throughout the films, most notably denying her a simple credit on reports. What a major transformation from his typical Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. And once again, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) is a blessing in the supporting role as Katherine’s love interest turned husband.
While we clearly know this film’s trajectory, the complete awareness doesn’t detract Hidden Figures from being a solid exploration of three important individuals. There’s not much focus on Spencer and Monáe’s characters. Yet. there’s enough present to genuinely sympathize with wanting to be what their potential calls out for. For the little screentime the trio have together, their chemistry matches their impressive performances.
Hidden Figures sets out to be uplifting, charming and inspiring. With ease, it manages to check off all three of those boxes. It’s history that not many people know about, but those of all ages should. It’s rare to find a film that will educate new generations without the heavy-handed lecturing. Perhaps, it’s a testament to scaling back plenty of risks that allow for the film to shine brighter than anticipated.