Every year around the MLK holiday and Black History Month, we see some notable films released that depict African-American history or the civil rights movement. This year, female African-American pioneers from the early days of our space program are given their belated due in director Theodore Melfi’s marvelous big-screen adaptation of Morgot Lee Shetterley’s nonfiction book ‘Hidden Figures.’ Entertaining, eye-opening and deeply inspirational, ‘Hidden Figures’ is essential viewing not only in high schools but for anyone interested in the American space program as well as gender and racial equality in the workplace.
‘Hidden Figures’ is the story of three remarkable women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who made valuable contributions to America's fledgling space program during 1962, at a time when the US was lagging behind Russia in the space race after Sputnik and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. In an era when Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” facilities were a part of life, African-American women working at the Langley Research Center (NASA's precursor) were segregated into a group labeled “West Area Computers” or simply “Black Computers.” Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and the beautiful and talented Janelle Monáe delivered highly nuanced performances that are at once memorable, charming and disarmingly human. Kudos should also go to the supporting cast of white people including Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, with the latter two having the unenviable task of getting in the way of the three protagonists.
To its credit, ‘Hidden Figures’ is not an angry movie that seeks to redress past wrongs and highlight the injustices and rampant racism of its era. Far from it, the film adopted an optimistically positive and light tone, focusing on the technical challenges of launching men and capsules into space while ensuring their safe return back to earth. The film is as much a history lesson of our space program during its infancy as it is on female empowerment or the “African-American struggle,” while also turning out to be extremely entertaining to boot. The critics are right on this one, ‘Hidden Figures’ is a skyrocketing hit and heart-warming crowd-pleaser that’s the first must-see movie of 2017.