Directed by Theodore Melfi
Screenplay by Allison Shroeder and Theodore Melfi
Based on the Book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Music by Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, and Hans Zimmer
Filmed on Location in Georgia
Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, the Mercury Seven: John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and the first man in space, Russian Yuri Gagarin *boo?*
If not every one of these names if familiar to everyone, it’s safe to say they are extremely famous people, heroes. (Oh. I forgot you racists out there. Why the hell are you reading this, anyway? Why are you on my site? Fuck off! You’re not welcome.) In the 1960s, you didn’t get bigger heroes than these. Some were fighting to be the “first”: first into space, first to orbit the Earth, to the Moon. One, and his loyal followers, were fighting for their own “firsts,” but theirs were more basic: first drinking fountain for blacks and whites, first lunch counter where they could be served without being spit upon, first restrooms that didn’t say “colored” over their door. These are the parallel struggles taking place in Hidden Figures. (Another name you might not be familiar with is the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA and the name of the agency when all three main characters went to work there.)
Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson — three of the human “Computers” employed at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to run the numbers through the formulas developed by the engineers calculating and creating the math for launch of the Friendship 7 capsule where John Glenn, Jr. would be perched atop the Atlas rocket and be blasted into space for seven orbits around the Earth and, if everything is checked and rechecked to the last decimal point, the re-entry point that would bring him safely home.
Wow! Those women are heroes, too. Surely, we’ve seen them in all these Right Stuff-stuff movies, except we haven’t. At least, I haven’t. I’ll bet it’s because they didn’t have money for “Colored Cameras” and “White Cameras” for all the newsreels back then, because NASA’s PR people weren’t all that hot to parade their black female geniuses if there were white men available. Good thing white dudes aren’t the ones really in charge anymore. Oh, shit…
Hollywood knew that just an inspirational story was likely to land the film on the Hallmark or Lifetime move channel. Maybe a premium one. That’s not an insult, just the jaded tastes of audiences. Which goes a long way towards explaining Michael Bay films… What they did though, was bring in some of the best and most sought-after actors out there: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, (and that’s just the three leads) Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner, Kimberly Quinn, and Kirsten Dunst. How about Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer on the music side? Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe also appeared in 2016’s multi-nominated and award-winning Moonlight.
Octavia Spencer just cannot play an insignificant woman. As Dorothy Vaughan, as supervises the segregated Computers room where her woman do the same work, perhaps more, they simply get no credit, aren’t given permanent assignments, and Dorothy — exceptional and talented as she is at managing people — will never be given the title or the pay of a supervisor. It seems a little enough thing now, but it was earthshaking at that time. One discount store still blanches at the idea of each pay and opportunities for women and people of colour. Spencer, like the real Vaughan, is an immovable object that NASA has yet to realise.
Taraji P. Henson (Empire) tones down her glamour to play Katherine G. Johnson, the nerd of the trio and, coincidentally, the mind more inventive and more necessary to the Friendship 7 launch and recovery than many of the engineers and top minds on the project. It is her equations and belief in the future that allow her to move beyond recognisable maths and create things never seen before, even when she has to work from heavily redacted copy. Her brain truly is a human computer, but one not convinced of its own infallibility. To see her step outside her mouse-like exterior and begin to take the credit due her is nothing short of uplifting, and Henson plays the mouse how roar– let’s say, stood her ground — perfectly. To say the launch might well not have proceeded or, if it had gone off without her input, might not have had the same celebratory outcome.
Did anyone need more proof of Janelle Monáe’s astonishing abilities before the cameras after Moonlight, where she was the heart of the film? I don’t mean the centre; I mean the sweet, loving, caring heart. She played it so well I would have loved to see her nominated, but it wasn’t the kind of pouring your guts out on-screen that gets an actor noticed. As the brilliant and, mostly, unflappable Mary Jackson, she begins the films in the Colored Computers department before being permanently reassigned to the Compressibility Research Division. Good for her! Bad for us. Unfortunately, this character sees the least time on screen of any of the major characters.
Monáe’s face flows like mercury passing through an astonishing range of emotions. I won’t say she almost doesn’t need to speak, because she is so deft with tossing off a remark full of innuendo or reaching out with tenderness and reassurance. And this is only her third on-camera acting credit. (Prodigies playing prodigies?) Had she played Johnson or Vaughan she would have seen more on-screen time but, look at her. I suppose they could have done a “Miss Johnson, you’re beautiful!” on her. Put horn-rim glasses on her and pull her hair up into a bun and *ha ha!*… Nope. Audiences bought that in a simpler time, but that would be like trying to make Olivia Wilde in Ma Barker. An Emily Blunt into a sow’s ear, if you will. Not even Monáe’s immense talent can change the fact that she is just lovely.
It would have been especially interesting to see Monáe or Spencer act opposite Costner, but they had no scenes with his character, Al Harrison. Harrison is the only main character who is not based on an actual person, that person being the one for which the producers could not get the rights, so whether he was as gruff and if, as far as science was concerned, he couldn’t be bothered with something as ridiculous as skin colour the audience will never know. The role comes along at a time when I was beginning to lose confidence in Mr. Costner, but he excel, holding his own as the male lead amongst a devilishly strong trio of females.
Yes, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, and Glen Powell are powerful, charismatic presences, but they are not the centerpieces of the movie. They are more treats to enjoy when they pop up again. (Before I forget, one of the many “easter eggs” in the film is the inclusion of one the actual historical characters. When actor Glen Powell is being interviewed sitting on the Friendship 7 capsule, the woman painting the insignia on is Cece Bibby, the woman the real John Glenn chose for the job. Though she is white, she was another “first.”)
Hidden Figures gives us people, causes, and goals to cheer for and some to hiss. Not every sentence and scene is straight from history, but it stands, as a whole, historically accurate. NACA was one of the first employers willing to hire women (white or black) in large numbers as the space race really took off. The Civil Rights protests and the violent reactions to the non-violent marches were actually worse than anything seen in the film. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. were locked in the Cold War and children were being taught duck-and-cover. On 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard was launched into space atop a Redstone rocket, not to orbit the Earth but fora 300-mile parabolic trajectory to the edge of space. On 20 February 1962, John Glenn, Jr. was bolted into the Friendship 7 capsule, armed with the calculations of all of those very real Human Computers, scientists, and engineers, on top of the Atlas rocket and shot into space orbit our planet. And on 8 December 2016, John Glenn, Jr. left the Earth forever.
All of that happened. It happened and you could learn it from the interwebs, scientific papers, books — all good options — or you can go watch an unmatched cast throw everything they’ve got into bringing an unseen part of history to life in a way you’ll never forget. It might just make you want to know more and it might make you wonder what other chapters of history have gone unappreciated for reasons as ludicrous as this one was.