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Movie Review: ‘Hidden Figures’ inspires hope for the future by revisiting the past

By Douglas Davidson

January 4, 2017

Hidden Figures is a heart-warming tale of three female African-American NASA employees who changed the outcome of the 1960 Space Race. Their accomplishments brought our country closer to the stars and reminds us that when we shed our ego, anything can be accomplished.

In 1961, embittered by the toll of Russia’s success in the Space Race, NASA fought to maintain funding as they sought to launch John Glenn in space. The only thing standing in NASA’s way – understanding mathematics that they hadn’t conceived yet to anticipate problems they didn’t know existed. Tapped to help tackle this seemingly insurmountable task is Katherine Johnson (Taraji O. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), members of the NASA West Area Computers Group, the all African-American team of NASA mathematicians.

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Left to right: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) Katherine Johnson (Taraji O. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer). Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Unlike most “true story” adaptations, Hidden Figures covers its story in three layers, which Director Theodore Melfi balances expertly throughout. The first layer focuses on the 1960s Space Race between Russia and the United States – a race that the U.S. was losing. Russia could send a mannequin into space, but NASA couldn’t develop the math to get an astronaut into orbit and back safely. By mixing archival news footage with the film, Melfi’s able to recreate for the audience the same sense of wonder and stress that the entire NASA team, from the computer pool all the way to the director, felt.

The second (and central) layer introduces Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson. This story enhances the Space Race story by making it personal, as the audience is given the women’s insider look into the science and significance of what NASA sought to accomplish. Where the archival footage provides a glimpse of the world’s reaction, the story of the three women is the ground-level view. Without it, there’s no tension within the Space Race story as today’s audiences largely grew up knowing that a man’s been on the moon.

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Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

This brings us to the third and final layers that colors the other two stories: the Civil Rights Movement. Though Melfi doesn’t spend a great deal of time diving into social politics, when telling a story about three African-American women in the 1960s, it can’t be ignored. Issues of segregation and gender equality are addressed throughout the story to provide context and to also provide a glimpse of who these three women are outside of the NASA grounds. To ignore the events of the Civil Rights Movement that ran concurrent to the Space Race would ignore a rather large factor in how Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson were viewed at the time.

Bringing this hopeful story together is a high-caliber cast of Oscar winners (past and future). Octavia Spencer (The Help) confidently embodies the poise and strength of Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African-American Supervisor. Taraji P. Henson (Empire) carries the bulk of the film, both narratively and dramatically as Johnson, and does so with her usual effortless delivery; embodying both the science and courage required to successfully send a man to space. As the brash, no-nonsense Mary Jackson, Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) is the absolute stand-out of the film and deserves an Oscar nomination for her supporting role, despite her screen time being much less than her co-stars. When Monáe is on screen, all eyes turn to her compelling performance. The supporting cast carries their water as well. From Kevin Costner as NASA manager Al Harrison, the leader of the Space Flight Group; Jim Parsons as team lead Paul Stafford; Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Michael, supervisor for the NASA support staff; Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest; Aldis Hodge as Mary Jackson’s husband; all the way to Glen Powell as astronaut John Glenn. There’s literally no shortage of amazing talent in Hidden Figures and none of it is wasted.

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Kevin Costner as NASA manager Al Harrison. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Hidden Figures will leave audiences feeling inspired and imbued with a sense of hope that many feel is gone in today’s political climate. By looking back to a time during the Civil Rights Movement to see three brilliant African-American women succeed in launching the first United States astronaut to space, audiences are reminded that anything is possible if we work together. A perfect message for the new year and an important message to remember as our country moves forward.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5.

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