This review of the film Hidden Figures is contributed by Pamela Thorpe. Follow her blog, “Miss Read, random thoughts of a misunderstood DIVA” at http://missreaddiva.blogspot.com
If any year has taken Black Girl Magic to an all-time high, that year is definitely 2016. Not only were there beautiful Black girls in the White House but Black girls made significant strides in every arena from politics to Olympic sports and of course entertainment. Our FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, pushed for education of children everywhere but specifically for African American girls in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) arena. Isn’t it fitting that a film, highlighting the accomplishments of three African American women who were critical to NASA and astronaut John Glenn’s successful launch to the moon, would finally be told?
Hidden Figures chronicles the stories of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine G. Johnson, and Mary Jackson, names that were most likely relegated to “Little Known Black History Facts” until just a few short months ago. After a 22 million dollar opening, on a nationally weather challenged weekend, I suspect they will soon be household names uttered with pride. Based on a book written by the daughter of a NASA research scientist who worked with the women, the story highlights their friendship along with the challenges each faced working with the backdrop of the Jim Crow South in a racist and sexist environment. Despite the odds stacked against them, the women played a critical role in America’s first successful moon launch, piloted by astronaut John Glenn.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monae, poignantly play the women and are supported by a cast that includes Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali. Spencer plays Vaughn, leading and nurturing the Colored Pool of mathematicians, without the title of supervisor. She teaches herself to program the then innovative IBM computers, and by movie’s end finally is named NASA’s first African American supervisor. Henson plays Johnson, in a role so much more demure and low-key than her over the top Cookie Lyons portrayal in “Empire”, I wanted to stand up and cheer for that alone. Johnson is the trusted number cruncher who was an integral part of John Glenn’s flight team. Not only was she eventually allowed to attend NASA briefings, she actually calculated the equations that led to Glenn’s successful launch and landing in his quest to orbit the earth. Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, had to legally petition the court to allow her to take university courses at a segregated high school in the evenings. Jackson goes on to become NASA’s first African American female engineer.
Given how long it has taken for the three women to receive any accolades, I think this is a film they would be proud of. It appropriately highlights the joys of their personal lives and friendships versus their more intense and often daunting work environment. As a viewer, I relished those scenes away from NASA so I can only imagine how they cherished them. Tender moments with their children, families, and each other, coupled with church attendance and functions probably sustained them for the work week ahead. At work, they endured racist and sexist acts that were characteristic of the times. As part of the Colored Pool, their work assignments changed regularly. Johnson had no Colored restroom to utilize and could be found running from building to building with stacks of work in hand, on a daily basis, in any weather to find one. At this point she had proven that she was brighter than most of the men in the room, yet they didn’t even want her to pour coffee from the same pot. You can feel the emotion and passion Jackson has as she makes her case to go to a segregated school during the height of Woolworth sit-ins and demonstrations.
This film is a must see. The film makes math (and physics) look pretty cool. Not only does it reinforce Black Girl Magic but it is a story of female empowerment that will resonate with any girl. Yet, the film is not just for girls, it’s for everyone. The characters are relatable and you will cry over their pain, celebrate their joys and cheer their victories. The relationship between the women is warm and humorous. You will welcome those moments because you want them to succeed despite the oppressive roadblocks that are thrown in their way. You will walk away from the movie with new knowledge of the past but you will also walk away wondering how many more of these stories exist and when exactly will they be told.