One of the criticisms of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” is that it’s a familiar story, familiarly told. But there aren’t any new stories: people fall in love, or go on quests, or are faithful, or not, until death. People show courage or cowardice, confront obstacles or run from them. These are the stories that have held us since people began telling stories.
“Hidden Figures” is a story that will catch you and hold you from beginning to end. It will, by turns, break your hearts and lift them up. The movie based on the true stories of three African-American women who were instrumental in the success of America’s first manned space launch on February 20, 1962. These remarkable women — Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) — were pioneers in space, in education, in workplace equity and in the civil rights movement. Their story deserves to be told in a movie like this which honors both their professional expertise and their personal honor.
The movie opens with Johnson as a little girl in the Jim Crow south, a little girl who is a math prodigy. The next time we see her, Johnson is commuting to work at Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia, with her friends and colleagues, Vaughan and Jackson. The three of them are working as “computers” at the base. Their job is to generate and check figures related to the fledgling space program. They work in a segregated section of the computing program in a building marked “Colored.” That building is also the location of the single “Colored Women’s Restroom,” and this restroom, with its distance and isolation from the rest of the base, becomes an effective way of demonstrating the cruelty and craziness of racial segregation.
The women are friends whose professional paths lead them out of the computing rom. Johnson is recruited to the central command headquarters at Langley, where her arduous 1-mile roundtrip visits to the “colored” bathroom become a central motif of the movie. She is working long hours, doing the mathematical computations that will make Glenn’s flight possible, hampered all the while by the jealousy of colleagues, the inconveniences posed by segregated spaces and a racism so deep that, shortly after she arrives at her new assignment — the sole woman and the sole African-American in the room — she finds that someone has placed a little electric coffee pot beside the communal coffee urn. The coffee pot is empty and it bears a typed and taped sign reading, “Colored.”
Meanwhile, Jackson sets out, at the urging of a Jewish, Polish-born scientist, to become the first ever African-American female engineer. She already has the aptitude and an undergraduate degree in mathematics, but she lacks some of the engineering pre-requisites. The only local place where she can take those classes is an all-white high school. Jackson has to go before a judge to plead for the right to be allowed to take classes in the high school. It is a humiliating process, but Jackson’s dignity and bearing turn humiliation into triumph.
Vaughan understands early that the future of computing lies not with individual humans sitting before adding machines, but with computers. She teaches herself to code and sets out to bring the other women in her department along with her. She goes to the “White” library looking for the Fortran text she needs. She is reprimanded and asked to leave and go to the “Colored” library. When she explains that the book she needs is not available there, Vaughan is told again to leave. These petty slights are painful to watch, but Vaughan’s strength shines so brightly as to finally eclipse them.
“Hidden Figures” celebrates faith and family — the husbands in the movie are not the stars, but their strength and fidelity are a refreshing change from the usual movie portrayal of men — discipline and courage. Does this review make the movie sound plodding and dull? Or does it sound like a bracing dose of medicine, nasty tasting, but good for you? If so, blame the reviewer, not the movie. “Hidden Figures” is, by turns, funny and suspenseful and touching. It’s a good story well told.
I saw it with nine family members, the youngest who is five. She didn’t follow the whole thing, but she liked it, too, especially the scenes of the rockets launching. There are some mild curse words. The most upsetting aspect of the movie for older children is the racism under and against which the women struggle. But they will likely, as were the older children in our group, be encouraged and challenged by the portraits of these American heroes.
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