Hidden Figures

HIDDEN FIGURES. Starring: Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 127 min.

This biographical drama is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, and tells the factual story of a group of African-American women who were employed as mathematicians by NASA, USA, in the 1960s as "human computers". It was chosen as one of the top ten films of 2016 by the National Board of Review, and tells the story of three female pioneers who contributed significantly to America's Space race.

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), were employed by NASA for their mathematical skills in the lead-up to the launch of John Glenn into orbit. It was at a time when America was desperate to excel in the Space race, and the country wanted to prove its superiority over Russia.

The film is not just a movie about Space supremacy. Much more so, it is the story of the empowerment of three black women who were exposed in their employment to strong racism and sexism. The segregation policies that existed in Virginia, USA, where their institution was situated, dictated that they had to work in separate sections to their white co-workers; they were not allowed to use a white person's toilet; and they were not permitted to be in a meeting room with white males to share their mathematical knowledge. At the time NASA was searching for the best, and felt compelled to accept candidates it knew Society might otherwise discourage. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were the only women employed in a field that was dominated by white men.

All three women were exceptionally talented mathematically, and Katherine stood out. Her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) allowed her to check the calculations of her colleagues, so that NASA could claim it was doing whatever it could to stay abreast of rocket science. Katherine successfully contributed her expertise, and was pivotal in identifying flaws in the experimental space capsule's heat shields that helped save the reputation of NASA's space program.

Over time, the skills of the three figures ("the women you don't know behind the Mission you do"), came to be appreciated. The Director of the Space Task group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) eventually abolished the segregation of bathrooms. Katherine was accorded respect, Dorothy managed to get NASA's new supercomputers to communicate with each other, and Mary was given permission to attend an all-White University College to obtain her Engineering degree.

As the final arrangements for the launch of John Glenn into orbit approached, Katherine was told she was no longer needed by the Space Group, but John Glenn requested that she return to the program, and her mathematical ability helped save both the reputation of the program, and his life. The film's final credits inform the viewer that she was involved in the calculation of the trajectories for the Apollo 11 Space mission that landed a man on the moon in 1969.

The film deals inspirationally with the social inequities of the period, and cleverly integrates archival, historical footage. There is no violence in the movie at all, nor any signs of fractious rebel-rousing, nor idealism let run rampant. It is a positive empowerment story about the victory of humanity and competency over the prejudices of discrimination. The performances of Henson, Spencer, and Monae are outstanding, and the quality of their ensemble acting is exceptional, and complemented nicely by Kevin Costner's performance as Director of the Task Group. All of the women confront bias and prejudice confidently and with spirited dignity, and the movie celebrates their achievements as "Hidden Figures" warmly. They helped America respect human rights at an important time in its history, and this film about them is hugely entertaining.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Twentieth Century Fox

Released February 16th., 2017

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