Hidden Figures: An Amazing True Story

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Hidden Figures tells the amazing true story of three women who were pioneers in the space program. These three women were such an important part of American history and their achievements have been overlooked until recently.

Everyone knows about the Apollo missions and astronauts like John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. But has anyone heard of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson? I never heard their names growing up and I was a U.S. history buff yet they were the “human computers” working for NASA.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, the screenplay was written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder and based on recent book by Margot Lee Shetterl. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Kimberly Quinn, and Kevin Costner.

The way that Melfi brings their story to the screen is one that is fast-paced and provides a lot of humor, such as when they are being escorted by a State Trooper to their office. Their rise in NASA–known back then as National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics–played a pivotal role in John Glenn’s first orbit around Earth. Glenn would not even trust the computers before lifting off. He wanted to get the go from Johnson herself. It’s their work that shows what happens when women unite together.

At the same time though, it’s set in the 1960s in the heat of the Civil Rights battle and Cold War. Both the US and Russia hope to be the first to put a man in space. Spencer’s Vaughn teaches herself to use the IBM computer and figures out how to work the machines before the men do! If there is a challenge, it can be solved no matter what gender someone is.

“This story takes place at the collision of the Cold War, the space race, the Jim Crow south, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement,” Melfi says. “It is incredible territory for a rich and powerful story few people know about at all.”

When we think of NASA, we think of locations such as Houston and Cape Canaveral. Yet it was the Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton, Virginia where a lot of the grunt work was happening. Working in the segregated West Computing group, these incredible women rose up above it all and they did it without having the technology that we take for granted. Johnson was a college graduate by the time she turned 18, with degrees in Mathematics and French. Vaughn became the head of the West Computing group. Jackson was an Aerospace Engineer. Johnson is the only surviving member of the trio.

Kevin Costner plays Space Task Group Leader Al Harrison. Harrison is based on a number of people at the time, including NASA administrator James Webb. Costner’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination but the field has been so tight this season that he will likely miss out.

Henson’s performance is so strong that it’s an absolute shame that she’s being passed over for best actress. It’s one of the finest performances I’ve seen in the last year. While it seemed as if Monáe would be the main nominee for supporting actress, it’s Spencer that picked up nominations from HFPA and SAG.

The release of Hidden Figures comes just days after John Glenn passed away. The film appeared to be locked prior to his passing as there is tribute in his memory.

20th Century Fox opened the film with a limited release on December 25th. It will start playing everywhere on January 6, 2017.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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