Hidden Figures

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1961, mathematician Katherine Goble works as a human computer in the segregated division West Area Computers of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, alongside her colleagues, aspiring engineer Mary Jackson and their unofficial acting-supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.

Following a successful Soviet satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Supervisor Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, given her skills in analytic geometry. She becomes the first black woman on the team; and in the building, which has no bathrooms for non-white people.

Katherine’s new colleagues are initially dismissive and demeaning, especially head engineer Paul Stafford. Meanwhile, Mitchell informs Dorothy that she will not be promoted as the bureaucracy is not planning to assign a “permanent supervisor for the colored group”. Mary is assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, and immediately identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. With encouragement from the team lead, she submits an application for an official NASA engineer position and begins to pursue an engineering degree more assertively.

At a church barbecue, widow Katherine meets National Guard Colonel Jim Johnson, and they are attracted to each other, but she is disappointed when he voices skepticism about women’s mathematical abilities. He later apologizes, and begins spending time with Katherine and her three daughters.

When Harrison invites his subordinates to solve a complex mathematical equation, Katherine develops the solution, leaving him impressed. The Mercury 7 astronauts visit Langley and astronaut John Glenn is cordial to the West Area Computers.

Katherine becomes better acquainted with her colleagues. Harrison finds Katherine not at her desk one day, and is enraged when she explains that she must walk a half-mile away to another building to use the colored people’s bathroom. Harrison abolishes bathroom segregation, personally knocking down the “Colored Bathroom” sign. Regardless of Stafford’s objections, Harrison allows Katherine to be included in their meetings, in which she creates an elaborate equation to guide the space capsule into a safe re-entry. Despite this, Katherine is forced to remove her name from all the reports, which are credited solely to Stafford. Meanwhile, Mary goes to court and convinces the judge to grant her permission to attend night classes in an all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

Dorothy learns of the impending installation of an IBM 7090 electronic computer that will replace her co-workers. She visits the computer room to learn about it and successfully starts the machine. Later, she visits a public library, where the librarian scolds her for visiting the whites-only section, to borrow a book about FORTRAN. While congratulating Dorothy on her work, Mitchell assures her that she never treated her differently due to the color of her skin; Dorothy is unconvinced. After teaching herself FORTRAN and training her West Area co-workers, she is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department for the IBM, bringing 30 of her co-workers to do the programming. Mitchell eventually addresses Dorothy as “Mrs. Vaughan,” indicating her new-found respect.

As the final arrangements for John Glenn’s launch are made, Katherine is informed she is no longer needed at Space Task Group and is being reassigned back to West Area Computers. As a wedding and farewell gift from her colleagues (Katherine is now married to Jim Johnson), Harrison buys her a pearl necklace, the only jewelry allowed under the dress code.

The day of the launch, discrepancies arise in the IBM 7090 calculations for the capsule’s landing coordinates, and Astronaut Glenn requests that Katherine be called in to check the calculations. Katherine quickly does so, only to have the door slammed in her face after delivering the results to the control room. However, Harrison gives her a security pass to the control room so they can relay the results to Glenn together.

After a successful launch and orbit, the space capsule has a warning light indicating a heat shield problem. Mission control decides to land it after three orbits instead of seven. Katherine understands the situation and concurs that they should leave the retro-rocket attached to heat shield for reentry to which Harrison agrees immediately. Their instructions prove correct and Friendship 7 successfully lands in the ocean.

Following the mission, the mathematicians are laid off and ultimately replaced by electronic computers. Katherine is reassigned to the Analysis and Computation Division, Dorothy continues to supervise the Programming Department, and Mary obtains her engineering degree and gains employment at NASA as an engineer.

An epilogue reveals that Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The following year, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Center’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in her honor.

REVIEW:

We all know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have worked for NASA over the years, many of which were instrumental in getting the space program off the ground, as it were. With that in mind, I would be willing to bet no one knew about the three remarkable women that Hidden Figures is about. Let’s find out if the film taught us something about them, or should have left well enough alone.

What is this about?

As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.

What did I like?

Who knew? As I said in my opening, the amount of people who know anything about these women can probably be counted on your hand. This film brings their story to us and also shows little girls that they too can grow up to work at NASA. It truly is amazing how this part of history has never been taught or even mentioned. Sure, they aren’t up there with the likes of George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Walt Disney, but these women paved the way for future generations!

Music. I was digging the soundtrack, I must say. On top of the score, we have some soulful period music, a couple of new tunes that were composed for this film and fit the era and, most importantly, there is some jazz on the side. A little something for everyone and these tunes aren’t depressing and morose, but rather upbeat and fun. I’m going to go track down the soundtrack and just sit back and listen to it. If I can keep from dancing, that it.

Tonality. Most biopics these days tend to focus on the negative side of a person’s life, totally ignoring that they did enjoy living at one point. These are human beings. Are you seriously going to tell me that they didn’t joke around with some friends at least at one point in their lives? Thankfully, this film takes note of that and shows these women in a way that represents who they were as human beings, rather than just characters in a movie. The film itself has an almost comedic tone at parts that I’m sure some will not care for, but it works for me, at least.

What didn’t I like?

Is that you, Sheldon? I feel bad for Jim Parsons. The guy has created a character so iconic and recognizable that he can’t play anything else without comparisons being brought up. His role as the head engineer, at least to me, felt like what Sheldon would have been doing were he “normal”…and then throw in the racism and sexism that this guy displays. I don’t want to say that he shouldn’t have been cast, because he did a fine job. I just couldn’t help but make the obvious comparisons to his character from Big Bang Theory

Race. I have two opposing viewpoints on how race was handled in this picture. On the one hand, I am glad it wasn’t the focal point of the film. On the other hand, we have here a picture set in the 60s, some things just can’t be ignored. This is the problem with this film. Race isn’t a big issue for the film, and I applaud it for instead focusing on the main characters, but there are times when we get some heavy stuff, such as any scene with one of the women’s husband, who seems to be more of a militant than the caring, peaceful types in the rest of the film.

Make it personal. I keep praising how the film focused on our 3 leads, Taraji P. Henson’s character, especially, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed in how we were shown their lives outsides of work. It is almost like they go to work and back home with maybe a side trip to church if it was convenient. A few more scenes of their home life would have been nice. The whole romance angle with Henson’s character could have been shown, rather than an introduction in one scene, a second meeting, and then they were getting married. Where was everything else?

Final verdict on Hidden Figures? Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going in. I assumed this would be another one of those films that pushes the race angle down our throats. That was not the case as this turned out to be a fun film in which I learned something about these women and the space program, as well as had a few laughs. Do I recommend this? Yes, very highly! This is the kind of flick that everyone can enjoy and learn from.

4 out of 5 stars

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