Hidden Figures is based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, spotlighting their contributions to the history of modern aerospace technology during the height of the space race. True to its title, the film’s plot centers around the ground breaking work of these three African-American women whose historical acknowledgement and legacy has remained largely hidden until the release of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name earlier this year. The film focuses most of its attention on Katherine Johnson, a gifted mathematician who is assigned to work alongside NASA engineers in their efforts to launch the first American into space on the heels of the Soviet Union’s successful flight of the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Finding herself in the unlikely position in 1960’s America of being a black woman working alongside white male engineers ensures that Johnson will have to maneuver her way through a minefield of racial, social, and cultural conflicts as she works to get Astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and more importantly get him back home safely.
The highlight of this film is definitely the great story that it tells about women refusing to be held down and fighting for their right to reach their potential. Its other biggest strength lies in the actor’s performances and the overall like/relatability of the characters. Taraji P. Henson plays Mathematician Katherine Johnson, and imbues her with an endearing mixture of quiet humility and determination that makes it near impossible not to feel like you are walking the halls of NASA, experiencing her struggles alongside her. Octavia Spencer’s performance as Dorothy Vaughan, rivals Henson’s and is only minimized by the focus on Katherine Johnson’s arch. In many ways Dorothy is actually a much more interesting character. Unlike Johnson, she isn’t gifted with an otherworldly ability for mathematical computation. She sees an opportunity and refuses to let racist and sexist boundaries stop her from working her way toward mastering it. Not only does she protect her own career and future but she ensures that she shares that opportunity with the entire department of black women that she manages. Combined with Janelle Monae’s energetic performance of Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer, these stories and the strength of the performances present a compelling film about racism, sexism, and segregation in 1960’s America and three women’s refusal to let those factors govern their lives.
The Cinematography and overall visual theme of the film also bears mentioning. Filmed in a wash of pastel colors and softly lit compositions, Hidden Figures does a great job of creating a nostalgized visual cue to the idea of a Norman Rockwellesque early 1960’s America. Referencing that idea of innocence, nostalgia, and a throwback to simpler times allows for the juxtaposition of what the reality of life as a black woman actually living in America during those times really was, especially as women working to advance themselves and their careers.
This is the kind of film that inspires. How many films based on true stories can you name where the protagonists are black women? The truth of the matter is that these stories exist, they just haven’t been told. Hidden Figures seeks to change that and present the story of these three motivated women that history had largely forgotten. Until now.
|Hidden Figures (2016)|
|Release Date:||January 6th, 2016 (World Wide)|
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