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Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures is a story about breaking barriers that is, at least in part, based on fact. It’s 1961 and the “space race” between the United States and Russia is underway. Russia has put a spy satellite into orbit around the earth, giving Americans a feeling of unease, and Russia is the first to put a man (Yuri Gagarin) into space. As Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), the big boss at NASA says, “we (meaning the United States) have come in second in a two-man race.” This state of affairs puts a lot of pressure on the American space program and forces NASA to work its employees mercilessly.

Three black woman named Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are new employees at NASA. Each of them is accomplished in her own way. Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) has been a math prodigy since she was a small child. It takes a lot of calculating to launch a rocket into space and bring it safely down again. Katherine is more adept at the calculations than most of her male counterparts. She is, of course, underestimated because of her gender and her race. This is 1961, remember, so black people can’t use the same coffee pot as the white people, not to mention toilets and drinking fountains. Al Harrison seems a cold and forbidding boss, but as he sees how capable Katherine is, he develops a grudging admiration for her and becomes, in a way, her mentor. When Katherine wants to attend all-male briefings to better understand what is going on with swiftly implemented changes, she is told there is no protocol for a woman to attend briefings. “There is no protocol to put a man into orbit around the earth, either,” she says.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar playing a maid in The Help) is mechanically inclined. As a new employee at NASA, she heads up a group of black female employees, but she is stonewalled when she tries to get the pay and title of supervisor. (This slight is probably more about her race than her anything else.) When NASA installs a mainframe computer that takes up an entire room, Dorothy is the only person who seems to know how to get it going.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) is only an adjunct to her male counterparts, but she longs to be NASA’s first black female engineer. She lacks a few classes, though, to even qualify. She can pick up the classes she needs at a school near her home, but she’s not allowed to attend because it’s an all-white school and she’s black. Having no intention of being thwarted, she petitions the court to bend the rules a little bit to allow her to get the classes she needs. She finesses a white judge and he rules in her favor.

After being out-classed by the Russians at the beginning of the space race, the American space program finally finds its legs and does some amazing things, including putting a man, Alan Shepard, into space and putting another man, John Glenn, into orbit around the earth. At the end of Hidden Figures, when Katherine Goble is asked if the seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon can be achieved by the end of the 1960s, she says with confidence, “We’re already there.” To her it’s the next barrier to be broken in a long line of them to come.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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