Numbers, Numbers, Who Has The Numbers
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali and Karan Kendrick
Director: Theodore Melfi
Scriptwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Composer: Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
20th Century Fox
Rating: PG 13 with scenes of racial discrimination
Running Length: 125 Minutes
“Hidden Figures” is a somewhat awkward title for this film. It can have three meanings, that of hidden numerical figures in an equation or hidden figures behind a project or even spies within an organization. That said, the initial NASA space program was comprised of men---in the Control Center and in the air. Then came a group of ladies with brains that were actually calculators and before you knew it, NASA needed them, but quietly, of course, so as not to upset the apple cart, which in the 1950’s and on, was both male dominant and white dominant. Thus, comes the story of three African-American women, who ended up literally managing the space program, though little was know to the public of them until now. Yes, things were Top Secret, but that was then. Enter Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), as the three ladies who scaled the wall. Their boss at the space program, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) was on their side, but he had to walk a fine line, too.
There are three major female leads in this movie, so the film is pided into segments showing their obstacles and what happened to change the situation for them. The film begins with Katherine (Henson) who is the brightest child in school with advanced math skills and a mind like a calculator. She goes on to college (early) and ends up with a job at NASA, though not without discrimination. Then, we see Dorothy (Spencer) whose skills are more with machines (fixing a car motor) and eventually, the first computers. Mary (Janelle Monae) wants to become an engineer, but is hampered because of lack of classes for African-American people (meaning women) and has to go to court to prove she can tackle such a subject. The three women work together at NASA and we are introduced to the necessity of a space program when Russia launches Sputnik and works to put their people in orbit, first. America is lagging behind, but can't figure out the exact trajectories to take their men into space and bring them back again. As Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), their boss says, “This math hasn't been invented yet.” Or has it?
Katherine is a single Mom and dating is out of the question, Octavia does managerial work but isn't paid for it and Janelle has the engineering problem. What situations they face include where to find a rest room, since the NASA buildings are “white.” How to recheck other scientist's work when they won't give it to a) a woman and, b) an African-American woman. Such details were preventing the space program from moving ahead at full capacity. There is drama here and yes, humor, too.
The actors move into their roles well. Taraji P. Henson plays Katharine, a petite woman who has to stand up--literally---to men. She always wears high heels and runs very well in them, while balancing books. Her facial expressions show exasperation, but she can't show too much of it. Octavia Spencer is Dorothy, the woman who can organize anything and would like to be paid an equal wage, too, but is kept down by the system. Janelle Monae, as Mary, has her moment in facing a judge about college classes. In fact, the three leads all have their moment of clarity in spelling out what life is like for them as an African-American woman in that time period. Then, there is Jim Parsons (“Big Bang Theory”) who plays a scientist with enough sarcasm for five people. He thinks he is the smartest person in the room---always. This is not far from the role he plays in “Big Bang.“ Kirsten Dunst is Vivian Jackson, who is Spencer’s boss and lets her know it, and Kevin Costner plays the guy in command who needs to have the space program on schedule, but who to trust with this? Women or men? His decisions will have repercussions, especially when the future space flight group, with John Glenn (John Powell) in the lead, visits NASA. Now, it is personal. The numbers can't be wrong. Period.
So, we come to the present, with a lagging space program, plans eventually to travel to and back from Mars, and several nations, not just the U.S.A. and Russia, have satellites in orbit. It began in the late 1950’s and one look at the size of the first computer there (very large room) and then, no one who could program it---until one woman (Dorothy) taught herself. So there, it takes women. “Hidden Figures” gives us life then with a taste of humor, the stories of the three women shown in vignettes, and what happened later is at the end of the film. Stay for the credits.
Copyright 2017 Marie Asner