Movie review by Andrea Karen Hammer
Hidden Figures (2016), based on the untold true story of three brilliant African American women at NASA, is a timely movie to watch because of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. As mathematical wizards breaking gender and racial stereotypes, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are portrayed with spunk and determination while confronting endless obstacles.
The story begins with the infrequently seen and welcome image of a little girl (Katherine) talking about trapezoids and solving complex equations at a blackboard. After a sudden jump to adulthood, she holds a quiet but fierce position propelling the center of this film. With her spirited friend, Mary, and the frustrated by supportive Dorothy, the trio continue to surprise others with their remarkable intelligence as “colored” women working at NASA.
The jarring and disturbing label, which is pervasive throughout the story, re-opens wounds from a deeply troubling time in our history. Watching Katherine run back and forth to the “colored” ladies room at work–in high heels and downpours–sparks outrage. When she finally explains her 40-minute absences to her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who is demanding an explanation, the generally reserved Katherine lets sparks fly.
Powerful and Award-Worthy Performances
In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Taraji P. Henson delivers an award-worthy performance. Finally capturing the stunned attention of her boss and resentful co-workers, she spits out their demeaning treatment in detail. Thankfully, the mysteriously unaware but generally fair-minded Al takes a sledge hammer to the “colored” ladies room sign with fury–declaring that everyone working at NASA is the same.
At every turn, the women encounter objections and insults regarding their mere presence and efforts to advance simply because of their race and gender. Particularly unsettling is the belittling attitude of their white “superior” Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and a secretary who assigns Katherine a desk in the back of the room. Along with similar scenes on buses and ejections from public libraries because of their race, the women constantly need to defend their legitimate contributions (requiring dismissal of co-workers’ spy accusations), basic right to attend engineering school and claim on a well-earned supervisory promotion.
Amid these exasperating struggles, news footage and scenes about the space program are reminders of these extraordinary achievements. As reminders of a remarkable yet disconcerting time in our history, Hidden Figures is an astonishing and important film to watch.
Questions for Artsphoria’s Online Film Forum
What scenes in this movie elicited strong reactions, and why? Do you think that the issues these women encountered are still present and, if so, in what ways? What did you think about the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and others in Hidden Figures?
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