Movie review: Hidden Figures reveals great accomplishments

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Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African-American women employed by NASA who were invaluable to the 1960s space race. 20th Century Fox Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African-American women employed by NASA who were invaluable to the 1960s space race. 20th Century Fox

Hidden Figures is a story that must be told for its own sake-—the overlooked contributions of brilliant scientists and mathematicians who have been left out of history for their gender and race—but as a film, it rises to the challenge with a devastatingly clear grasp of how deep racism goes in our society.

Hidden Figures
PG, 127 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX,
Violet Crown Cinema

Several times throughout Hidden Figures, one of our characters accomplishes something great in front of those who doubted her, leading her to be invited to previously closed meetings and sought for expertise by people who were once her deepest antagonists. With every achievement, however, comes a reminder of how petty and hateful the world can be, sometimes in the form of a slammed door, a denied promotion or a barbed, dismissive, paternalistic comment that is clearly rooted in race.

Even with this weighty subject matter, Hidden Figures—based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Charlottesville’s own Margot Lee Shetterly—remains inspiring, optimistic and thoroughly watchable. The film follows NASA-employed mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). We meet the leading ladies on their morning commute as their car breaks down, seeing each in her element: Dorothy taking direct action by fixing the motor, Mary attempting to hitchhike and Katherine gazing at the sky. When a police officer pulls over, they must get ahead of how the conversation might go, ultimately defusing his clear racial animosity (which he does not explicitly state, a running theme in the film) by appealing to his patriotism—that they must get to work on time to stay ahead of the Russians in the thick of the space race.

The three work at West Area Computers in Langley, Virginia, a division staffed entirely by African-American women. Katherine soon joins the team responsible for the calculations necessary for John Glenn’s safe launch and re-entry under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), where she finds her work is extremely valued but she is not. There is the indignity of needing to walk a half mile to find a restroom for “colored women,” not receiving credit for her work and finding a coffee pot labeled “colored” after her arrival. Al only cares about the success of the mission and accepts Katherine for her skill, while Paul sees the need to treat her as an equal as a clear threat. The other friends often find themselves in similar predicaments; Dorothy is unable to get the title and pay grade of a supervisor though she already does the work, Mary has the potential to be a valuable engineer but lacks the necessary degree that she cannot get because the school is still segregated.

As well as being a snapshot of life in the early ’60s—President John  F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. appear in several montages; the words “civil rights” are on everyone’s lips but the Civil Rights Act has yet to be passed; Brown v. Board of Education has been decided but is unevenly applied—Hidden Figures is the story of how ideas and people change. The white characters are not snarling, epithet-hurling bigots we associate with the word racist, but they often follow the social norms of a racist society, making their actions no less dehumanizing.

Hidden Figures would be worth a watch even if it were a purely perfunctory exploration of the story. But thanks to an intelligent script, captivating performances and thoughtful direction (not to mention gorgeous production design), this is a film that deserves a spot on Oscar ballots this year and social studies classrooms for years to come.


Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

A Monster Calls, Assassin’s Creed, Collateral Beauty, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fences, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Passengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing, Underworld: Blood Wars, Why Him?

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Assassin’s Creed, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fences, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Passengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing

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