(The Picket)- When one thinks of NASA in the early days of the space program, names like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn come to mind easily, but the many people who help put these men in space are often forgotten, even more so if they are women or minorities.
Hidden Figures explores the story of three of these unsung heroes. Dorothy Vaughn played by Octavia Spencer, the first African American women to be promoted to head personnel at NASA. Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe, was the first African America women to be an aerospace engineer at NASA. Katherine Goble Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, was the mathematician who calculated landing and takeoff coordinates for some of the first manned space flights. These are all three amazingly powerful and strong women and the film’s choices give them their full due.
The actresses all shine through with flying colors. Spencer’s Vaughn is a n- nonsense caring supervisor of the other African American women at NASA. Her performance has just the right amount of authority and reality to make us wish she was our boss. Monáe’s Mary Jackson is sassy and willing to fight for what she wants and believes in, not to mention being one of the most beautiful women on screen. Henson’s Katherine Johnson is at the center of this master piece as the film gives us more of her personal life as well as work. Her performance is emotional and deep, she has several scenes that will make you wish you brought a box of tissues with you to the theater. Director Theodore Melfi gives us a beautiful picture starting with the history of Johnson as a child, before bringing us to the present story of these three women in NASA of the 1960s. The film features gems of hidden symbolism with props and situations such as Johnson being presented with chalk both as an adult and as a child to have her chance to shine.
The film also does not shy away from the overall issues of race, it practically hits us in the face with it. The film’s protagonists are repeatedly thrown obstacle after obstacle and rise above them in triumph. From facing segregated schools and libraries, to having coworkers who refuse to share a coffee pot, the reality of 1960s racial discrimination is everywhere in this film.
If the film’s handling of race has a down side it is in the presentation of the white characters as enablers of these women in some ways. Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is shown to be a sort of savior in some ways once he is made aware of discriminations that he appears all too oblivious to earlier in the film, and Glen Powell’s John Glenn is presented as what may be the least racist white man in all of 1960s America. While some of this may be true to the source material it gives the struggles of these women less credit than they deserve in light of their accomplishments.
Over all this is an amazing film with great meaning and wonderful, strong African American female characters. This is an absolute Pick-it movie for me, I would not be surprised to this film on an Oscars’ list for best director or best actress.
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Jessica Sharpless is a reporter for the Picket and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org