Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hidden Figures: Women Getting Things Done

Hidden Figures (or Hidden Fences as the Golden Globes would have you call it) is about the black women who worked in NASA's space program and helped America send a man into space. Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterley, this is a vital story that finally deserves its moment in the spotlight.

Set in 1962, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae star as Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three black women who work as "computers" in NASA's segregated West Area Computers division. Back then, computers were actual human beings who performed all of the calculations to determine the trajectories necessary to launch a rocket, put a man in orbit around the Earth, and get him safely back to Earth. These three women were brilliant and the movie tells the story of how they eventually got their due and became pioneers in their respective fields. All three pursued their dreams and ambitions, chafing against the restrictions placed upon them by Jim Crow laws but refusing to back down. Thanks to their perseverance, the world got to benefit from their intelligence and hard work, but like many female scientists and women of color, their astonishing work remained unacknowledged for decades. It's a shame we're only getting their stories now, but better late than never.

The script by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (who also directed), is quite straightforward and there is little in this movie that you won't see coming. It follows very familiar Hollywood beats and the swelling music and grandiose actions to say "segregation is wrong" are a little on the nose at times. However, all that is unimportant when you are being gifted with the scintillating trio of performances from Henson, Spencer, and Monae. These women are magnificent, whipsmart and engaging, playing the game and following the rules except when those rules get in their way and need to be neatly sidestepped. Every parent should take their child to see this movie, both to inspire them to work harder at school but to also instill a little streak of rebellion so that they always fight to get their rightful due.

Hidden Figures is not a traditional biopic, focusing very firmly on the work life of these women and only giving us occasional forays into their personal lives and families. Even those personal moments reiterate the solid support structure these women had, with mothers, husbands, and children who wanted them to achieve greatness and did not begrudge them their long hours and seemingly impossible dreams. I have rarely seen a movie where working women are championed so fiercely and allowed to pursue their careers without constantly having to fight their families. Apart from the obvious message of racial equality, this movie is also tackling gender equality and illustrates how these women succeeded not just in spite of being black, but also in spite of being women.

Watch this movie. It is important and necessary, and still manages to be funny and charming. After the "Oscars So White" controversy last year, it is spectacular to see a movie that delivers powerful performances from not just one but three black actresses who steal every scene they're in. The white characters in this movie are the more one-dimensional ones, serving only to get in the way of these ladies and receive their comeuppance. Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, and Kirsten Dunst all deliver perfectly fine performances, but they can't hold a candle to the main trio. Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are American heroes, and while their contributions (and the contributions of all the other unnamed women who served as computers and then programmers at NASA) have remained hidden for far too long, I imagine they would be proud to have their legacy celebrated in this fashion. 

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