Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 127 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This real story about the black women who worked at NASA and helped get the first Americans into space includes some scary moments, including the threats of exploding and crashed rockets and astronauts dying; some horribly racist moments and scenes, including white people mocking and undermining black people; some sexually themed jokes; and some flirtation and kissing between adults.
‘Hidden Figures’ is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and most feel-good movies of the year, unflinchingly portraying the women who battled against American racism and segregation while working for NASA. This is a well-crafted, wonderfully acted crowd pleaser.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Hidden Figures” has a Christmas Day release, usually held for the movies that studios think will appeal to the greatest number of viewers, and this ensemble showcase about the black female mathematicians and scientists who worked for NASA during the space race deserves this prime programming date.
The story is meaningful; the script is insightful; and the trio of performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are flawless. “Hidden Figures” is feel-good holiday viewing with impactful messaging at its core, a movie that rightfully celebrates the accomplishments of black women while criticizing white privilege, that encourages a new generation of STEM-interested girls while showing the difficult, meticulous work that goes into engineering, aeronautics, and mathematics. “Hidden Figures” has a lot of fine lines to walk, and it does so with grace and grit equal to Henson, Spencer, and Monáe.
The film focuses on the three women, who all work in the “Colored Computers” section of NASA: math genius Katherine Johnson (Henson, of “Think Like a Man Too”), aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Monáe, of “Rio 2”), and mechanical whiz Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer, of “Allegiant”). Each of them is supremely talented, and each of them faces racism, bigotry, and condescension every day at work, where they are overseen by the casually cutting Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, of “The Two Faces of January”), who disparagingly calls all the women by their first names, smirks that all their jobs are “temporary,” and warns the “colored computers” not to embarrass her.
That’s the general environment at NASA in the early 1960s, where everyone is at their wit’s end trying to get the space program off the ground in competition with the USSR, and in which Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy all become involved. Katherine is assigned to the unit overseen by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), toiling nonstop each day to check the math of the calculations that would send American astronauts into space. Mary works on the construction of the shuttle, overseeing procedures that test the safety of the vessel. And Dorothy, who doesn’t have the status of a supervisor but does all the work of one, decides to teach herself and the other women Fortran when she realizes that the IBM computer NASA has ordered may replace them—because if there is anyone undervalued at NASA, it’s these women, everyday suffering the pervasive indignities lobbied at them for happening to be female, black, and good at their jobs.
“Hidden Figures” smartly gives us an understanding of each woman’s interior and professional lives, how they balance being wives and mothers with the ambition and expertise required for their professions. It’s in how Henson’s eyebrows shoot up to the sky when potential suitor Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2”) wonders how a woman handles all the high-level math she’s regularly breezing through. It’s in how Spencer nails the delivery of “Son, I pay taxes” when her children wonder why she steals a book about Fortran programming from her local library. And it’s in how Monáe, in her first main acting role, shows us Mary’s steely resolve when she goes to court over whether she can attend engineering classes at an all-white school, telling the judge “I can’t change the color of my skin, so I have no choice but to be the first.” Every woman gets a chance to show us who she is and why she is, and “Hidden Figures” lets us truly feel for these women by inviting us to truly know them.
Everything else in “Hidden Figures” revolves around these three stellar performances and these three exemplary women. Costner is predictably great as a man who doesn’t really think about inequality until he realizes it’s hurting his own goal for the space program, and whose selfishness leads to awareness. Glen Powell (of “Ride Along 2”) is fantastically charming as John Glenn, the only astronaut to greet the black women when he arrives at NASA. And the funky soundtrack by Pharrell Williams provides an excellent backdrop to the film’s recurring sequence of Katherine jogging a half-mile across the NASA campus whenever she has to use the bathroom, because there is no facility for colored women in her building—one of those structural racism oversights that smacks you in the face.
“I had no idea they hired…” says a white male police officer who encounters the three women, and what he leaves unsaid is what “Hidden Figures” is unafraid to tackle. The movie’s directness, both in its depiction of what these women went through and what they accomplished both for themselves and for what we understand as American ambition, optimism, and equality, is what makes “Hidden Figures” must-see viewing both historically and emotionally.
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