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As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as "human computers", we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes. Written by
20th Century Fox
Appreciation. It's a condition which requires information and understanding and results in increased compassion, acceptance and inclusiveness. There are few ways to enhance appreciation for others more effectively than a well-made movie and the 2016 historical drama "Hidden Figures" (PG, 2:07) takes full advantage of that opportunity. Without being too busy or too preachy, this film helps the audience better appreciate the struggles of being a minority and a working woman (and even a mother working outside the home) in the early 1960s, the pressure involved in competing with the Soviet Union in the early years of the space race, the difficult challenges surrounding getting man into space (and returning him safely to earth) for the first time and the courage it required of those who were willing to go. That's a lot for one movie and might be too much for many but "Hidden Figures" is up to the challenge.
The film is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's book of the same name and follows three black women who worked in NASA's computer section in 1961. That's not to say that they worked on computers THEY were the computers. Back when electronic computers (with only a fraction of the capacity and speed of today's mainframes) took up an entire room and were just beginning to be installed in places like NASA talented mathematicians did calculations for the space program by hand.
Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, develops a talent for programming IBM computers and is a natural leader, but is denied a well-deserved supervisory position by NASA culture and her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who struggles to balance the demands of her increasing responsibilities at NASA with caring for her three young daughters whose father has passed away. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an outspoken aspiring engineer who is held back from becoming an actual engineer because of her lack of education, which she has difficulty overcoming because of segregation.
All three women make progress in their attempts to reach their goals and fulfill their potential, but with much difficulty, based on their gender and their race. Dorothy has been managing the women of the computer section for some time, but has to fight for the title and the pay and even takes it upon herself to learn more about NASA's newly-arrived IBM computer, while understanding that doing so could eventually cost her and her co-workers their jobs. Mary continues to make valuable contributions to NASA's efforts, while trying to work through the catch-22 of needing additional education to become an engineer, with the only nearby school offering such classes refusing to accept any black students.
But most of the screen time belongs to Katherine's story. As the most talented mathematician of all of NASA's human computers, she is called up to work in NASA's Space Task Group where she works directly with the standoffish Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and is supervised by the group's director, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Even as Katherine continues to demonstrate her capabilities, she is still subjected to drinking coffee from a pot labeled "Colored" and having to walk 20 minutes (each way) to the building where the nearest restroom for black females is located. Eventually, she earns the respect of her peers and comes to the attention of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) himself, who comes to trust her calculations above all others. Katherine also attracts a different kind of attention from the commander of a local Army Reserve base, Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who is also single. Embodying the dual meaning of the movie's title, Katherine works out the hidden figures needed for Glenn's mission and Jim doesn't mind that her figure is hidden beneath those unflattering 1960s dresses, as he comes to care more about her heart and the very sharp mind hidden behind her even less flattering eye glasses.
"Hidden Figures" is a marvelously entertaining film. The script adaptation by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi tells its true story accurately and engagingly, weaving its many story lines together seamlessly, educating and entertaining their audience throughout. Melfi also directs and uses his talented and award-worthy cast to thrill us, to make us cheer and give us moments of humor and just plain fun. I was impressed at how much this movie packed in without seeming cluttered, how much it affected me emotionally without being manipulative, and how much appreciation I gained for these women, their struggles and the importance of the times in which they lived and accomplished so much. It's also surprising that so little has been widely known about these women until now. Don't let "Hidden Figures" be a hidden treasure. See it soon! It's out of this world. "A+"
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