I am often surprised at how little I know about American history, particularly when it shows up regarding some of my favorite subjects. Twice this year, I’ve been hit over the head with the incredible story of the unsung black women who made some of NASA’s early achievements possible.
The first time was in an early episode of NBC’s new time travel show, Timeless. The Geekiverse’s Jamie, reviewed the episode “Space Race“, in which we got to see Katherine G. Johnson, played by Nadine Ellis, helping to save the day with the time traveling regular cast. The second was this weekend, when Mrs. Pete (If I call her Mrs. Grumpy it makes her grumpy) and I killed a lazy Saturday afternoon enjoying the recently released Hidden Figures.
The movie, based on the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of the pool of African-American women mathematicians who contributed heavily to the United States winning the space race. This film focuses on three women in particular, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, all members of the West End Computing Unit, the all African-American department in NACA, the agency that was the precursor to the modern NASA.
The story itself is so compelling because it is set in Jim Crow Virginia. The government had recruited the women to be human computers, checking all of the numbers of the rocket scientists that were trying desperately to compete with the Russians in developing the technology to put men first into orbit, and eventually on to the moon. It was fascinating to see how committed these women were to the cause of making sure their white counterparts were correct, all while having to use separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, libraries and even coffee pots.
Director Theodore Melfi mixed in what I assume was actual historical film footage, as well as radio and television announcers to give the film a real period flavor. Let me be clear, I am generally no fan of period pieces, unless they are in the future. This film, however, nails it. From the costume design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, which made me want to dress all 1960’s retro, and the production design by Wynn Thomas that made me feel like I was sitting and my grandma’s kitchen. As a guy with a degree in scenic design, I always look hard at setting.
With all of those incredible elements, it was the acting that really made this a film to remember. I’ve been a Taraji P. Henson fan since her stint as Detective Joss Carter on Person of Interest. The true test of an actor is being able to play different characters each time the camera rolls or the curtain rises. Many actors are really great at playing themselves. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine G. Johnson was nothing like her Detective Carter nor her Cookie Lyon from Empire. Completely different. Her versatility as an actress is on full display in Hidden Figures, as she brings to bear all of her tools in showing the multiple facets of the genius, the oppressed, the single mom, the woman in love. Award worthy performance, to be sure.
Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first black female supervisor, played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer, played by Janelle Monae, were also well cast. Monae, who is best known as a singer, and who performed two songs from the film’s outstanding soundtrack, really showed her chops as an actress in this film. She gives one monologue that left me with goosebumps. I won’t spoil it. You’ll know it when it gets there. I hope we see her on film more.
The best part about these three is how well they established the relationships between these three women. Serious when that is called for, playful when that is called for. Full of love and support in challenging times. There is lots of fictional stuff in this film I hope these tender moments are true, at least in part.
The cast was filled with other veteran actors, as well. I have to tell you, there aren’t many Costner films I don’t like. Tin Cup and Bull Durham are two of my all-time favorites. In Hidden Figures, Kevin Costner doesn’t disappoint. While his character isn’t an actual person, but instead a composite of several characters, he has several notable bits in the movie, one of which ranks in my favorite moments in the entire film. Again, you don’t need me. You’ll know it when it rolls by.
Jim Parsons, is an actor that I am afraid I will never see as anyone other than Sheldon Cooper again. The curse of success. He also plays a fictional character in Hidden Figures, but it took me only a few minutes to stop seeing him in a Flash tee shirt. He played the role of the starched collar, and prejudiced engineer, Paul Stafford, extremely well.
Finally, Kirsten Dunst played the hard nosed, white supervisor Vivian Mitchell so well that I didn’t even recognize her until halfway through the film. While Mitchell was also a fictional character, she, like Stafford was there to represent the attitudes and biases of the the day, and neither was a caricature of those. In fact, it reminded me that there are varying degrees of and motivations for racial bias, and not all of them are unadulterated hatred. It also reminded me of two things – segregation happened in my lifetime, and that there were good people who didn’t care about the color of a person’s skin, even when it was legal to use that as a reason to oppress. John Glenn, for instance has a scene near the end of the film that actually happened, and while my respect for Glenn is high, this event ramped it even higher, if that is possible.
This film is a must-see movie this year, and at this writing it has been number one at the box office two weeks in a row. It has all the right stuff – script, design, score and acting. I found myself smiling throughout the film. This one is destined to be one of my all-time favorite films, and I look forward to my copy on Blu-ray, which I hope is full of bonus material.
+ Based on an incredible story about incredible women.
+ Well written script
+ Visuals were great – cinematography, costumes, production design
+ Soundtrack with vocals by Janelle Monae and produced by Pharrell Williams
+ Great acting overall, but award winning acting by Taraji P. Henson
– Had a few, very few, slow spots
– I so wanted all of it to be true, but bunches of it were fictional
– Not super exciting, which is hard to do when we all know the outcomes.
Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.
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Did you see Hidden Figures? What’d you think? Leave me a comment below.