Why does it take Hollywood to tell us about U.S. History? Shouldn’t we be learning about key historical figures that influence our way of life in school? Shouldn’t we know the entire story, not just bits and peices? The answer is yes, but at least someone is telling the story and this particular one comes from Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, the screenwriters who adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. During the racially harsh and biased times of the 1950’s, the race between Russia and the U.S. to get to the moon was in full throttle. Three mathmatical geniuses, called “computers,” helped N.A.S.A. and the U.S. win this coveted title of being first to the moon. Without these women, who were African-American, a significant portion of our history would have changed. Overcoming extreme prejudices, these women trudged forward, not only proving their value, but representing their gender and their race to make all of us proud.
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a gifted child, recognized and encouraged to develop by attending a prestigious school that allowed women of color to be educated. (To write that seems absolutely antiquated, and to realize that this happened in our very recent past is unsettling.) Katherine’s intelligence earned her the admiration of others in her field, those who computed, but it was her assignment to assist in developing a mathematical equation to allow for the space mission to continue that is one of her most valuable contributions. Her story is told and a part of history is unveiled for all to see…and to appreciate…in “Hidden Figures.”
Immediately, you get a sense of understanding of the times as the three women, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are broken down on the side of the road and a police officer comes up from behind. Initially, you’re happy they’re going to be helped by the officer, but then you realize that the race issue is going to hit hard and heavy. The three friends, using their intellectual skills, quell the possible negative outcome and persevere. This situation is just one of many to arise as the women tolerate such bigotry and hateful behavior due to their skin color AND their gender. But not even the white women support them due to their race. Imagine having to run a mile in heels and a skirt just to use a particular restroom. Or not being able to drink from the same coffee pot as all the white men. These are just two examples of the everyday racism these women endured.
While we know the outcome of the project, it is the journey that we see these women travel that makes this such an engaging film. Although the script is quite black and white in terms of people’s actions and perceptions, it definitely conveys the period’s inability to accept one another. I would like to think that not everyone back in that time period saw things in that manner and one character, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gave us that glimpse of possibility. Perhaps people did have a few shades of grey to allow for compassion and understanding, but this clear-cut division makes the film and the message work and hit home even harder.
Lidya Jewett plays the Young Katherine and while she doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, she is perfect in her part. Henson creates the older version of Katherine with seamless style and confidence. Her strength and determination are powerfully portrayed on the screen, yet we still have complete understanding of her fears and hesitations. Octavia Spencer is always a joy in any role she takes and the role of Dorothy Vaughan is no different. She brings a level of real-life comedy to her part and her delivery and body language punctuate her every line with utmost skill. She could easily be a leading actress, but Henson is lucky to have such an extraordinary actress supporting her. Monae is a striking beauty on the screen, but she brings so much more than that to any part she plays. She has a quick wit and a sharp tongue in this role which is conveyed as being quite natural. The three women together are all very different, but augment one another as beautifully as an evening meteor shower—and just as awe-inspiring.
While “Hidden Figures” conveys a very important part of our history and the acting is engaging, it is the side story of Katherine’s love interest that doesn’t mesh as well with the rest of the film. It’s an important part of Katherine’s life, but really doesn’t do much to move the story forward. In fact, these scenes seem a bit stilted. This isn’t a major drawback to the film, but one portion that just doesn’t add up quite like the rest of the film.
Films like “Fences,” “Loving” and “Hidden Figures,” all take on a socially relevant topic of race and history. Unfortunately, times may not have changed as much as we had hoped they had. Perhaps seeing these films will allow us to take a more careful and closer look at race, prejudice, and the importance of acceptance, compassion, and empathy.