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The Black Women Who Helped Put a Man Into Orbit

Measuring the ‘Hidden Figures’ of space travel

Jan. 3, 2017
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In the eyes of the world, NASA was an all-white, all-male institution during the golden years of the 1960s space race. Drawn from Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction account, Hidden Figures dramatizes the work of people whose faces never appeared in broadcasts from Cape Kennedy or Mission Control, a trio of African American women whose facility with numbers made them useful as America vied with the Soviet Union for dominance in space.

Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson

Octavia Spencer

Janelle Monáe

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Rated PG

At the lead is childhood math prodigy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), whose aptitude in the arcane science of analytic geometry positioned her to help write the math that put the first U.S. astronauts into orbit. Her friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are “computers,” the term still referring to people doing computations, not the machines that would largely supplant them. Katherine is bookish but practical, a widow raising two children (with her mother’s help) and working an intellectually challenging job in a socially challenging workplace. Mary is the outspoken one most willing to break the code that kept black people in a lower place. Dorothy is always collected and polite and has mastered the skill of moving gently forward against white resistance.

Although Hidden Figures sometimes highlights its points heavily, as if afraid the audience will miss the meaning, the screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi does a good job of showing just how surprising was the sight of black people and women—much less black women—in many leading professions as recently as the ’60s. The trio at the heart of Hidden Figures often provoke disbelief if not outright suspicion that they have no business being where they are—or are up to no good. Katherine tangles repeatedly with her always supercilious, often contemptuous coworker, Paul Stafford, played in a good bit of secondary casting by Jim Parsons, the brainiac from “The Big Bang Theory.” 

Not everyone stands in their way. Kevin Costner plays a gruff, no-nonsense NASA administrator who, faced with the reality that the Soviets were beating the U.S. into space, just wants to get the job done regardless of the color or gender of his staff. In one of Hidden Figures’ dramatic flourishes, he brings down the “white’s only” sign over the women’s restroom with a sledgehammer after learning that Katherine had to walk half a mile to the nearest “colored ladies room.” The screenplay makes a point of singling out one of the early astronauts, John Glenn, for being supportive of NASA’s cadre of African American women.

“Based on true events,” Hidden Figures trims the messy complications of reality to fit the tidy boxes of conventional Hollywood storytelling. It provides dramatic moments, with an orchestra for effect, where the true events were probably more scattered and spread over time. And yet the story it tells, embodied by the vivacious, unaffected acting of its lead actresses, is an emotionally accurate depiction of the countless petty indignities endured by African Americans of that era and beyond. It’s also a reminder of the excitement and danger of the early space program in the days when Americans sat spellbound before their televisions, watching and waiting. Space flight remains dangerous but anxiety during the period was acute. The earliest American rockets tended to explode before reaching high altitude.

Hidden Figures handles its subject with humor as it champions believable characters that rise beyond social expectations, supported by strong families, community and each other.

For David Luhrssen’s list of top films from 2016, click here.

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