Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Movie Monday: Hidden Figures

Yes, I know it is Tuesday...but it FEELS like Monday because of the holiday yesterday. Besides, I have a backlog of movie reviews to write and nothing new to review on TV, and I already wrote a TV Tuesday post on the summer shows I am looking forward to. So, it's Movie Monday, despite what the calendar says!

Last weekend, my husband and I rented Hidden Figures from Redbox, a movie I've been dying to see since it was released in theaters this winter. It was just as good as I'd heard and earned every one of its many awards and nominations.

Hidden Figures is an adaptation of the book of the same name, based on the real-life story of the team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in the space program in its early years, despite rampant discrimination. Never heard of them before? That's the whole point of this wonderful movie!

As the story opens, we see Katherine Johnson, played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson, as a young girl in West Virginia who is a math whiz. Her crazy skills get her a place in a prestigious school, years ahead of her peers and supported by her proud parents. Katherine grows up to work at the new government agency NASA, as a "computer," one of a roomful of black women who toil away in the basement doing the mathematical calculations necessary to support a whole team of engineers trying to conquer the space race. Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, also work as computers with Katherine.

Dorothy is the de facto leader of the group, though her superior, the white Mrs. Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, won't recognize her as such, so she doesn't get the title - or the salary - of supervisor. Mary is tapped to assist a group of engineers and yearns to be an engineer herself, but she's not allowed to take the necessary night classes because the local high school where they are held is for whites only. Katherine - still just as brilliant as in her childhood - gets moved up to the main group of scientists and engineers who are working to catch up with the Russians in getting a man into space and back. The supervisor of the group, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, requested the best mathematician available and was surprised to see Katherine, a black woman, show up.

All three women are portrayed in the movie - their personal lives, their careers, and their struggles - but Katherine is at the center of the film. Her calculations of flight trajectories, launch windows, and return paths were critical in getting John Glenn back home safely from the first Mercury mission that put a man into orbit and dozens of other missions during her long career with NASA. Despite Katherine's brilliance, she encountered huge obstacles at work, including horrible discrimination from her white male co-workers, from not being able to drink from their coffee pot to having to walk for miles across campus and back to use the only black women's restroom. Her co-worker, Paul Stafford, played by Jim Parsons, is particularly hesitant to give her credit where due, though her supervisor, Al, eventually sees her talent and supports her.

This is a stunning, horrifying, glorious story of overcoming obstacles and achieving your dreams. All three of the main women (and, I'm sure, the rest of the computers as well) faced significant challenges, not the least of which was being invisible to their white coworkers, but their strength, perseverance, and dignity are inspirational. Though Katherine is at the center of the movie, we also see Mary and Dorothy deal with their own struggles and climb their own mountains.

It's a wonderful movie, all the more powerful because it is true. In 2015, the real Katherine Johnson, at age 97, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. The open discrimination these talented women faced is stunning to see, especially since these events occurred only about 60 years ago. It is uplifting and moving to see each of them break through barriers to achieve her goals. The acting - as you might guess from the all-star cast - is outstanding, and the three lead actresses are especially affecting in their performances. It's an incredible story, ending with a joyful feeling of triumph.

Hidden Figures is currently out on DVD or you can rent it (streaming) on Amazon for $4.99 (link below for both). It is only available on DVD through Netflix, not streaming.



    

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