The incredible story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson had gone undocumented for 40 something years until it was uncovered in a book proposal by author Margot Shetterly, the writer of the book, Hidden Figures, that the movie is based on.
Based on true events, the movie centres on African-American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monáe), who were part of America’s effort to successfully launch the first astronaut into orbit in the ‘60s.
The movie, directed by Theodore Melfi, also stars Kevin Costner as Katherine’s supervisor Al Harrison, and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons who plays the unwelcoming head engineer of the Space Task group at NASA.
Katherine is a skilled mathematician who works with Dorothy in the segregated African-American “computers” department – what NASA called the brilliant women who worked on calculations – in an outbuilding at Langley Research Building and their friend Mary is an aspiring engineer.
America is lagging behind Russia who recently sent astronaut Yuri Gagarin up into orbit, and in desperate need of solutions to advance, so pushing aside protocol Harrison recruits Katherine from the African-American computer pool to work in the all-white Space Task group on calculations for the astronauts’ trajectory.
The lush, gorgeous looks of the film’s location in Virginia belies the hardships the three women face as they dealt with institutionalised segregation.
An immaculately dressed Katherine is forced to dash a half-mile to use the “coloured” bathrooms incurring the suspicion of a frustrated Harrison when he can’t find her. And Mary’s bid to become an engineer, considered impossible then for a black woman, is constantly thwarted, until she is forced to take her case to court. Lastly there’s Dorothy, who has not been officially made supervisor of the computers, but is quick to see the possibilities of the new IBM computer and secretly teaches herself how to use it so she won’t be out of a job.
The film includes a finely pitched performance by Henson as Katherine which has been largely overlooked by awards panels in favour of Spencer’s more commanding presence as Dorothy. But for the actress, who shot to fame as the brash Cookie Lyons on TV show Empire, it shows she has the chops to tackle meatier roles, and Katherine’s quiet confidence and mathematical genius is stunningly conveyed with great humility by Henson.
Acting newcomer Monáe earns her place in the cast with her winning portrayal of aspiring engineer Mary. A successful singer, who trained as an actor, she manages to sink into the role, and lose all trace of her pop star persona. She also turns in a respectable performance in this year’s sleeper hit Moonlight.
Kirsten Dunst also stars, and plays the role of the mean supervisor well, and acts as the perfect sour foil to Dorothy’s optimistic determination.
Set against a backdrop of racially charged, segregated America, Hidden Figures is an absorbing watch, but as is often the case with Hollywood movies, it sometimes slips into saccharine territory. Katherine is a widow and a mother of two perfectly behaved children who never throw tantrums about her working late. And John Glenn (Glen Powell), the astronaut Katherine is working hard to get into space, is the all American hero with the apple-pie grin to go with it. His niceness is an antidote to the meanness the women suffer at the hands of other characters in the movie. And Costner’s Harrison just isn’t quite believable at times.
But on the whole Hidden Figures uncovers an important story that needs only one word to describe it – inspiring.
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