By CYNTHIA BIDDLECOMB
“Hidden Figures” is currently my choice for the best picture of 2016. The film was just released to the public Jan. 6 and surprised everyone by immediately jumping to the top of the charts. The popularity of the film is well deserved!
This is a period piece about the American space program in 1961 and about the people behind the scenes whose dedication to the effort made space flight possible for our nation. Among them, were these three exceptionally gifted people featured in the film, each with math skills and one a math genius, African-American females living in segregated Virginia. Though their work at NASA Langley is the focus of the film, we also get to know their home and social life, with friends and at church.
The story takes place at a key point of transition for our country technologically and sociologically. This was the NASA Space Program of the early 1960s—back when men were men, and women were hired as “computers”. These three very smart female friends are working in the “Colored Computers” group, running the numbers and calculating trajectories.
Featured is the story of Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson from Empire) for whom, last year, NASA named a new building. It was thanks to her creative, mathematical thinking that John Glenn got back to earth from his space orbit in Friendship 7.
Henson’s portrayal of Katherine is smart and sensitive, at times outspoken and other times self-contained. Katherine gets moved from the computer group to the Space Task Group, serving under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and her immediate supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory). At home, she’s a widow with three girls, a mother to care for them while she’s at work, and a new beau, Jim (Mahershala Ali: Boggs in The Hunger Games).
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer from The Help) is supervising the Colored Computer group without the title or the improved pay grade. She sees the new IBM machine coming in, realizes it will replace her group, and prepares the women for the new technology. Her interactions with Miss Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst from Spiderman) are a key component of the film.
Mary Jackson (the musical recording artist Janelle Monae) shows promise in her new assignment in aeronautical engineering. Her supervisor encourages her to continue her education by going to grad school in that field. She has a great scene convincing a judge to let her integrate the school where the courses are taught.
Hidden Figures is “Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.” Its characterization of institutional racism is difficult to watch. But this is an important film that everyone over the age of ten should see, and will likely be glad they did.