Collin's been a movie critic since 2009. In real life he works in marketing and is also a novelist ("Good Riddance" published in Oct 2015).
2016 has been a year full of historical films, many of which gave the spotlight to little-known true stories. From Loving to Hacksaw Ridge to even the mediocre War Dogs, all kinds of eye-opening tales had their moment. Now comes Hidden Figures, which educates us on the incredible, game-changing role African-American women played in the nascent days of NASA.
Set in 1961 and beginning just as the Russians launch Sputnik into orbit, Hidden Figures focuses on three women in particular—Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Fighting persecution and sideways glances in the segregationist days of the early Civil Rights era, the women (and their colleagues) stood up for what they believed and used not only their education but their fierce and independent spirit to make a difference. Along with furthering the prowess of the US space program, they also advanced their race and their gender with grace and devotion.
Goble, a genius mathematician, is working in the colored women’s computer lab at the outset, but she soon gets called up to work on the front lines with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the task force charged with getting the astronauts into space and back home successfully. Her immense talent for number-crunching and geometry gets the attention of Harrison almost immediately, and she soon shakes up the old boys’ club with her talent.
At the same time, Vaughan is gunning for a supervisor role in the lab, just as NASA gets its first mainframe computer, and Jackson is doing her damndest to make a mark as an engineer. All three women turn in memorable performances, full of grit and spit and vitality, more than doing their real-life counterparts justice.
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) propels the movie along nicely, pushing all the right buttons along the way, and the screenplay co-written by Melfi and TV scribe Allison Schroeder deftly balances the personal and professional lives of the women. Peter Teschner’s editing does feel a bit disjointed at times, but it can’t stop Hidden Figures from being a rock-solid triumph.
In a world where colored water fountains and back sections of buses were the order of the day, these three women bucked convention and proved they were among the best minds in an organization full of the best minds. It’s a story that few people outside of NASA may have ever heard, but it’s a truly amazing and goosebump-inducing one, and Hidden Figures does a brilliant job sharing it. It’s a movie full of heart and feeling and inspiration, as important as it is entertaining.
Note: Hidden Figures is rated PG, due solely to mature themes of segregation and discrimination, but it’s by all means a family-friendly film. It's appropriate for, say, fourth graders and up.