Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hidden Figures: A Review


It is time to acknowledge true heroes, or in this case, heroines, that for too long have been in the background.  Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women who were vital in the success of the NASA program in its early years, culminating with the successful launch and reentry of the late Colonel John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.  It is inspirational, no doubt about that.  While that might put people off, the fact that over the course of Hidden Figures we see the three main characters in public and private gives us a more balanced and interesting story than the mere 'our characters triumphed' story.

The film centers on three particular African-American women, and the central story within our triumvirate is that of Katherine Goble (later Johnson) (Taraji P. Henson).  Even as a child Katherine was passionate about numbers, a true mathematical genius but like many mathematical genius not the most socially adept person around.  With her spectacles and mostly meek manner, the widow and mother to three children at times finds standing up for herself hard.  She isn't weak, but she also isn't the most demanding of people.

Fortunately for Katherine, her two friends and fellow NASA colleagues have little to no problems in that department.  The de facto supervisor of the "Colored Computer Room", Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spenser), is an elegant, strong woman, frustrated that despite doing the work of a supervisor is persistently denied the title and pay of one, told that the "Colored" section at NASA (made up entirely of women) don't need one.  The third figure, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), is probably the most radical of the three.  She chafes under the limitations her race and gender place on her.  She knows she is capable of being an engineer, but meets constant impediments on two fronts.

The three friends have a passion for their work at NASA, and soon they each push/are pushed into different trajectories in both NASA and their private lives.  Katherine is assigned to be the 'computer' (the human to calculate the numbers) to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who has run through a variety of 'computers' and is not very approachable.  She finds a mixture of contempt and disinterest by the all-male, all-white mathematicians/engineers, in particular by Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who balks at the idea that anyone needs to look at his numbers. 

Dorothy keeps plugging away at being officially made a supervisor, even if her own supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), has no interest in pushing that.  In Mary's case, it is to be an engineer.  She finds encouragement from her friends and Mr. Zielinski (Olek Krupa), the head of her department who reminds her he is a Polish Jew whose family was killed in the Holocaust and like her, now is working to get a man into space.  She doesn't at first find encouragement from her own husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), who pushes for more agitation and thinks school isn't the right venue.  Eventually, he sees the error of his ways and is on her side.

As for Katherine, she endures things at first with almost quiet resignation but as time grows she begins in her own quiet way pushing for change.  She endures the indignity of having to run half a mile to the nearest "colored" restroom since the one at her building has no such facilities, and quietly seethes when the others surreptitiously create a 'colored' coffee pot that is never plugged in.  It isn't until the unwitting Harrison chastises her for taking forty minutes to go to the restroom (and oblivious to how drenching wet she is due to having to run in a rainstorm) that her pent-up frustration explodes.  Harrison, a pragmatist more interested in beating the Russians than in race relations, strikes back by forcibly removing the 'colored' sign in the restroom and telling everyone within earshot, "Here, we're all one color".

Dorothy has been quietly and secretly working with the IBM brought in to replace her 'girls', and manages to get it running when the white male technicians cannot (though not without stiff opposition from of all places, the public library).  Once the machines take over, Dorothy has trained her group so well that NASA turns to them for help.

At last, all the forces align to get John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space.  Everyone, black and white, has worked hard to get this done, and things are looking well.  Glenn even insists he won't go into space until 'the girl' (Katherine) verifies the numbers and gives HER go-ahead.  Once up in space, it looks like a triumph, until Glenn gets a heat warning that forces him to return.  Everyone fears that he will be killed in reentry, but one word from 'the girl' will assure him to take that chance.  A rush to find Katherine, now surnamed Johnson having remarried Lt. Col. James Johnson (Mahershala Ali) puts her where no woman and no colored person has ever been: Mission Control.

The mission successful, the three women became not just pioneers but what they always should have been: highly respected figures within NASA, hidden no more.

Hidden Figures is a pun: 'hidden figures' relating to mathematical terms, and the women profiled in the film were 'hidden figures', vital figures in the space race but whose roles were not well-known due to being both women and African-American.  Their distinct personalities compliment each other.  Dorothy is the most tactful, keeping her composure whenever she meets obstacles but knowing where and how to push for change that will benefit those under her care.  Mary is more demanding of her rights, letting people know exactly what she thinks, why it's wrong, and using the courts to get what is hers by right.  Katherine just does her work and goes along with how things are, until she reaches her own breaking point and slowly, firmly, starts blending Mary and Dorothy's methods. 

Taraji P. Henson is one of our finest actresses.  It is astonishing that the person who is the generally meek but kind and loving Katherine is also the fierce, tempestuous, and Lady Macbeth-like Cookie on Empire (for the record, while I've never seen the show, I'm #TeamCookie).  Katherine doesn't necessarily put her head down, but she also isn't the type to stand up for herself (and I think this would be the same if she were white or even a man).  Henson's finest moment is when Harrison dresses her down for taking so long to go to the restroom.

All that quiet rage within her, Harrison's blindness to how she's drenched, Stafford's hostility, and everyone else's lack of interest in her as a person or her skills finally breaks out and in a strong and powerful moment Katherine lets out her fury at the indignity she has to endure.  It isn't just having to run in a skirt and high heels (all NASA regulation) just to use the restroom (and even throwing in mention of pearls, the only jewelry apart from wedding rings females are allowed to wear but that she cannot because as both a woman and a 'colored' person her pay would never allow her to buy).  It is the indignity of having a 'colored' coffee pot that she can't use because there's never anything there.

It is not a full-on fury that we see.  It's controlled but still passionate, a person who has had it. It does what it was meant to: shame them all into action.

It might be cliché, but it is one of those 'stand up and cheer' moments.  I wouldn't be surprised if audiences burst into applause at this, Henson doing so well throughout.  This was her big moment, but Henson was also so good in every scene, whether it's quietly standing up for herself, or whenever she makes the complicated mathematical terms easy, or when she's just herself with her friends/coworkers, laughing and breaking a bit out of her shell.

The romance with Johnson is also beautifully played, but it helps that her dance partner is Ali, giving a great performance of a strong but gentle man, who finds Katherine attractive but who also has to be taught a thing or two about how women can do for and by themselves.

Monae, I understand, is a singer (I'm not well-versed in popular music to keep up with things).  I was highly impressed with her performance and would have figured she has always been an actress (from what I understand, she is starting her film career).  Her Mary Jackson was composed, elegant, strong: a model for women of all color.  She wasn't afraid to speak her mind and express herself with grace.  As she presents her case as to why she, a colored woman, should be allowed to take courses at an all-white (and predominantly male) school, she doesn't shrink but maintains her composure throughout. 

Monae also shows a bit of a witty side when she finally does arrive at the school (to the shock of her white male classmates).  She's first told the class would be hard for women, to which she replies it would be hard for a man too.  Somewhat sarcastically pointing out there was no 'colored' section in the room, she asks if she should sit in the back or just find any available seat.  With that, she sits in the front of the class, and in a class by herself.

Spencer gives Dorothy a mix of elegance and tact, who knows the limits and pushes at them, slowly, but pushes nonetheless.  Her best moment is when she wanders to the white section of the public library for a technical book not available in the 'colored' section.  The white librarian informs her that she should go back to the colored section, but Dorothy, ever respectful but firmly, says she couldn't find what she was looking for there.  After being harshly ejected from the public library, Dorothy, along with her children, take the bus (the back, of course), and she pulls out the book she wanted out of her purse.  When her son asks her if she stole it, she points out that she pays taxes, so she can't steal what she owns.

Throughout Hidden Figures, what makes it a really powerful and moving film is that we get to know the women as individuals, strong, with families, elegance, and intelligence.  When we see them mistreated or shamed in any way, the reaction is strong.  I admit, when I saw that a 'colored' coffeepot had been brought, complete with the word "Colored" on it, I got mad.  No, mad doesn't cover it: I was furious.  The injustice, the horrible, petty injustice of segregation hits you hard, and you know that this is not just wrong but immoral.

Hidden Figures gives us how these particular women reacted to such indignities: by putting their noses to the grindstone and outworking everyone around them.  They had two burdens: being black, and being women.  When they weren't demeaned or ignored because of their race, they were demeaned or ignored because of their gender.  Even their menfolk sometimes got it wrong, but they kept their heads high.

Lest anyone think that Hidden Figures is all serious or somber, the film had wonderful moments of happiness, even humor.  The interplay between Henson, Monae, and Spencer was fun (such as when the three women shared some laughs), and there were moments of tenderness and sincerity (Johnson's marriage proposal was exceptionally moving).

Of the two songs in Hidden Figures, for me the stronger was Runnin, which we hear when Katherine is running to the restroom.  The lyrics and music keep to the style of the times and make subtle mention of the stories and situation the characters are in.  Pharrell Williams creates a singularly excellent number, and the closing song, I See A Victory, is equally brilliant, bringing a little gospel to this most triumphant story (no surprise, given the song was co-written by gospel music legend Kirk Franklin).

Everything about Hidden Figures works.  It's educational without being preachy, letting us admire and respect these women without makes this a dry history lesson.  It's a celebration of intellect, of courage, of defying limitations through the mind.  For me, it's a real American story: the story of extraordinary American achievements (the space race) brought to us by real American heroes...and heroines, regardless of color. 

I can't put it any other way.  I simply LOVED Hidden Figures.  It's a movie that makes you cheer, makes you proud, sometimes makes you mad, but uplifts your spirit.  It's a film that celebrates courage, praises the strength of intellect, and shows that the most powerful weapons against bigotry of any persuasion are the mind and the heart.

Perhaps there will be better films in 2016, but right now I'd name Hidden Figures not just the best film of 2016, but my favorite film of 2016, a film I am a devoted champion of.

Thank you, ladies.  A job well done.

Katherine Johnson: Born 1918

Dorothy Vaughn: 1910-2008

Mary Jackson: 1921-2005



  1. I have such mixed feelings about this movie. On one hand, as you mention, the actresses are outstanding and the topic matter is SO crucial. However, I found myself craving a more concentrated look at each character's story, rather than a feel-good movie. (Maybe we'll get a Katherine Johnson biopic at some point?) But a lovely review, as always.

    1. Thank you.

      In retrospect, sometimes it was a bit heavy-handed when a more subtle touch might have been better. However, this is a story that should be told. I celebrate whenever accomplishments on this level are acknowledged.

      Finally, at a time when women and minorities of both sexes are misled into thinking that intellectual pursuits are not 'their domain', a film like Hidden Figures is such a strong antidote.


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