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Hidden Figures

“Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfi, is the story of three African American women who worked at NASA during the space race of the 1960s. This is back when the term “computers” referred to people, not machines, and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) led an entire room of African American women who did the math for the engineers and scientists who got all the glory. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, in what should be a star-making turn) was a talented engineer with no engineering degree, and Taraji P. Henson plays Katharine Johnson, perhaps the most gifted and brilliant mathematician on the NASA staff.

All three have significant challenges to face, and “Hidden Figures” spreads itself pretty thin to make sure all three stories are told. Vaughn can see that IBM machines will soon replace the jobs of the women she supervises, and tries to prepare for that future. Jackson can only get her engineering degree from a school that is Whites Only.  But the movie focuses mostly on Johnson, who has the opportunity to do groundbreaking work in the space program. But in order to do so, she must navigate a sea of white men who resent her presence, doubt her talents, and even refuse to share a coffee pot with her.

Kevin Costner plays Johnson’s boss, who eventually learn to respect Johnson and see her as a valued colleague. But the film thankfully avoids any sort of “white savior” nonsense; Costner’s far too pragmatic and goal-oriented to worry about justice. He’s not interested in fighting racism or changing the world, he’s obsessed with getting to the moon before the Russians do. The ingrained racism of the America in the ’60s is an obstacle in his way, so he gets rid of it, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes his workplace more efficient.

“Hidden Figures” comments on the social milieu of the ‘60s in an interesting way; these men at NASA are doing things never done before, inventing new machines and math formulas, and that means questioning conventional thinking every step of the way. You get the sense that perhaps that optimism and sense of being unbound from past ways of thinking about science and math perhaps made room for them to also reject or reconsider the racial attitudes that had been in place for so long.

As a film, though, “Hidden Figures” feels a little too much like a civics lesson. These women have been unjustly written out of the history of NASA until now, and theirs is a story that needs to be told and remembered. But it’s not a terribly dramatic story, and most of the time, the movie is too earnest and straight-laced, making almost no room for humor, or fun.  A lot like “42” a few years ago, this is a movie I’m glad got made, because of the importance of their subject matter. And both feel like movies destined to be screened in high school classrooms more often than future film festivals.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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