If you think a movie about the U.S. space program in the early 1960s mixed with a history lesson about civil rights with a bit of high-level computational science thrown in for good measure sounds boring, think again. The unknown and overlooked history of three African-American women who worked at NASA on the Friendship 7 project is terrifically entertaining (even if it is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy). The movie is fluff, but it’s good fluff with a great message and a noble purpose.
“Hidden Figures” tells the incredible true story of crackerjack mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who quietly played major roles in one of America’s most significant operations in the space race: launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. These heroines overcame great societal obstacles in their professions (and lives) and are an absolute inspiration to women (and men) everywhere. That I had never heard of them before this movie is pretty absurd; this is a part of American history that needs to be told, needs to be taught, and needs to be celebrated. Immediately after seeing this movie I began conducting research and reading more about these fascinating women and their considerable contributions to our country’s scientific and social advancement.
How fantastic it is to see a movie where one of the core messages is that society should highly value education and intelligence, making America a place where anyone can strive to rise above what they’ve been dealt instead of hurtling towards an idiocracy. These are strong, brainy, sassy women, and the three leads are perfectly cast in their roles. All three women are believable as resourceful ladies who faced so much segregation and sexism that they not only pushed back at the racism, they pushed up. The film’s greatest strength, with the exception of the true life subjects on which it’s based, is the charming cast. It’s hard not to instantly love this sharp trio.
Rounding out the cast are the forgettable Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as NASA bosses, and a nicely romantic turn from Mahershala Ali as a hunky love interest. It goes without saying that this movie belongs to Spencer, Henson, and especially Monáe.
As you’d expect, the movie touches on some pretty heavy racial themes, but it’s not done in a preachy way and is quite subtle considering the subject matter. Of course there are a couple of over-the-top scenes of forward thinking tolerance that most likely never really happened exactly as they are portrayed, but it doesn’t really matter because they still play as rousing crowd pleasers to adoring viewers.
It warmed my heart to see the sheer diversity of my audience in terms of race and age. It’s great when a movie like this can bring so many different people together, all of us cheering at the same moments of approval and acceptance that are shown in the movie. It gets slightly corny in parts, but this is an irresistible, uplifting movie with a positive (and important) message that’s still relevant today.
Note that this film is a very mild PG rating, making it suitable for most members of your family. It’s the sort of movie where you can happily and comfortably take grandma and your five year old with you to the theater.