Some might write this film’s recent nomination as Best Picture off as the Academy’s attempt to address the accusations of how white it has traditionally been. That does Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) Hidden Figures a gross disservice. This is a very good film. Exactly the type of the film Oscar voters love. A strong film that deserves the recognition as it has all that you could ask for from a film – interesting story, strong performances, an educational aspect, humour, and a person with a vision of how to best service the story behind it all.
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson – from television’s Empire), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Insurgent) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae – Moonlight, Rio 2) are three African American women who work at NASA. They worked there at the time that the United States were in a race with Russia to get up into space and eventually the moon.
The three women were part of the black pool of human computers working at NASA in 1961 in Virginia. In those days humans did the calculations that computers do today. When the space race with Russia heats up segregation begins to crumble. At Langley, at least. Dorothy fights to become the manager of the computer pool and begins to figure out how to work the new IBM computer. Mary is reassigned to work with the male engineers on the rocket ships. Katherine, because of her brilliance with analytical geometry, is reassigned to work with the group trying to get John Glenn (Glen Powell – The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 3) up into orbit. They all fight to be where they should be realizing that advancement for them means better futures for all black women.
Amazing what these three women accomplished and shocking (or not) that almost no one knew anything about them. Even more amazing when watch the film and unlike other films about geniuses these three women seem totally accessible people. You are not intimidated by their smarts, just amazed by it. Melfi’s film really depicts the women as human. These three humans use their brilliance for the betterment of humankind and never got any recognition for it.
Despite the racism and sexism the three faced it is a feel good film. That is because Melfi (as director and co-screenwriter) and co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder (Mean Girls 2) largely stay away from the aeronautical stuff and focus on the human element of the story. Shows them at work and in their personal lives. All their flaws and foibles are exposed. Added to that Melfi has just constructed a straightforward film that is happy just telling its story without getting all fancy. He has recognized that the story is enough and doesn’t allow it to fall prey to the usual missteps when it comes to race or historical films.
The strongest and most memorable moments of the film are when Monae, Henson and Spencer are on screen together. Their chemistry is great! Playing well off of one another with no hamming it up going on. Each does a great job with their characters each being given moments to shine alone up on the screen.
The period depicted in the film (1960s) is a time in which the U.S. was still largely a segregated society. Katherine – a brilliant mathematician, Dorothy- an astute manager and on the ground floor of computer science and Mary – one of the first female engineers, had to all battle to be taken seriously and for their contributions to be recognized. They fought hard and never gave up. Part of the message of the film is how they had each other to lean on when needed. This is not a film about one hero, rather it is about three heroines.
At the end, once you stop smiling about how much you enjoyed the film, you start to wonder how many other African American women’s stories have been edited out of history? Or how many were denied careers or advancement simply because of the colour of their skin? Then there are Latina women, Asian, etc. Leading you to conclusion that this film is just the tip of a huge iceberg.