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article imageReview: ‘Hidden Figures’ is a testament of our ability to create change Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Dec 22, 2016 in Entertainment
‘Hidden Figures’ is packed with inspiration as its poignant actors recount the ability for determination to overcome even the most stringent adversities.
When one reviews humanity’s various achievements over the centuries, it becomes evident that our potential for great things has not evolved as much as our ability to accomplish them. Technological advancements have made it possible for even some of the most far-fetched dreams to be converted into reality. Accordingly, it’s not so much that the population is getting smarter but that they have the tools to fully realize their brilliance. Thus, when one looks at a historical drama like Hidden Figures, the wonder isn’t at what they could do but how hard they had to fight to do it.
In the early ‘60s in the United States, most things were still segregated; but the civil rights movement for equal treatment was gaining momentum. Those defying the law on buses and at lunch counters are recorded in history, but behind the classified gates of NASA three women were breaking down barriers with their competence and ambition. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) worked in the agency’s “computer” pool, performing and confirming complex calculations for various projects, including the ones that would eventually put the first American in space. In the span of a couple of years, Mary would become the first woman and black person to be enrolled in the organization’s engineer training program; math prodigy Katherine would be instrumental in determining the calculations necessary to get John Glenn into space and back; and Dorothy would teach herself how to operate one of the first IBMs, which would lead to her becoming the first black supervisor at NASA.
These women were all smart enough to gain employment in critical positions at the government agency, yet they were treated as less than their white counterparts. Promotions were granted rarely if it all, though there were some senior staff members willing to look past the colour of their skins to see their potential for so much more than just computing. Mary is a natural engineer who is provided an opportunity to apply her skills by a European immigrant who wants her to find the road to success as he did. Dorothy takes on the responsibility of ensuring her position at NASA by educating herself and her team so they would not be made obsolete by a machine… though even her initiative is almost halted when the book she requires is reserved for white borrowers at the library. Katherine is assigned to Project Mercury, which is stalled by their inability to pinpoint the rocket's re-entry. Her job is to simply verify the men’s calculations, which is made difficult since half of them are usually redacted. Yet, she repeatedly demonstrates her worth to the team and is instrumental in their success.
However, these successes are hard fought. Mary is refused acceptance into the engineer training program due to a technicality she cannot overcome without petitioning the courts. Dorothy is expected to continue doing the work of a supervisor without the compensation because they don’t employ black supervisors. And most humiliatingly, Katherine cannot even use the bathroom in the same building as her new job because there isn’t one designated for black women. This final embarrassment results in a memorable scene in a movie that’s built around powerful and inspiring moments.
The story is supported by terrific acting by everyone involved. The women have unique and strong personalities demonstrating the perseverance of their real-life counterparts who were determined to contribute to the best of their abilities, regardless of the many obstacles that stand in their way. While Mary and Katherine are likely closer in age, the former is more outgoing and high-spirited while the latter is more of a dormouse with the heart of a lion. Conversely, Dorothy is older and more concerned with job security since she and the other computers don’t share the additional skills of her friends. Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons portray mathematicians working on Project Mercury, where Costner’s character is a leader who simply wants the best minds working on the problem and Parsons’ is limited by ego and rules (including segregation). Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst plays a woman in charge of the general computer pool and disguises her racism behind rules she has the ability to change.
One of the most refreshing scenes in the film is when John Glenn (Glen Powell) arrives at NASA and insists on greeting the black employees the same as everyone else; later, he refers to Katherine as “the girl… the smart one” rather than “the black one.” It’s a small but important moment and a sign of changing times. More than 50 years later, Katherine Johnson was deservedly presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Barack Obama.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
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