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Film Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures tells the true story of a trio of pioneering African American women working for NASA who helped put a man into orbit at the start of the Space Race. Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Mahershala Ali also have supporting roles.

Katherine Johnson née Goble (Henson), math prodigy turned NASA “computer”, is pulled out of the segregated section of black female mathematicians at NASA to help work on the launch and landing trajectories for manned rockets. She faces tacit but very pointed treatment by her white male colleagues who resent and spurn her for her black skin. Nevertheless, Katherine puts in the work, using her considerable talents to push herself, and in turn astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), into a new frontier. Henson beautifully portrays this exceptional woman who courageously endured systemic racism and sexism by day while also being a widowed mother of three in the evenings. Her major emotional breakdown after countless workplace indignities is handled deftly as Katherine reams out her colleagues and boss for their inconsiderate, dismissive, rude treatment of her, her voice shaking with anguish and rage. Although apparently bookish and meek, Katherine proves that she is able to stand up for herself and confront the men (both white and black) who would discount her for gender and the colour of her skin.

Katherine’s friends and co-workers, fellow black mathematicians, also work hard to overcome their fair share of mistreatment and oppression at work and in society at large. Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) leads the division of black women working at NASA but is refused a promotion and subtly threatened with job loss when the institute acquires an IBM computer. Mary Jackson (Monáe), an engineer, is prevented from getting her next certification due to Jim Crow laws that stop her from attending the course in a white-only school. Both women confront the system—Dorothy by learning how to program the IBM and Mary by going to court and gaining attendance to night classes—while also making way for others like themselves to have the same opportunities.

A clear message in the film is that, rather than limiting and judging people by their race and gender, working together and providing opportunities can lead to extraordinary achievements. Hidden Figures also implicitly lauds female friendships and STEM education for girls while also shutting down those of the mentality that doing nothing to support the marginalized makes them better than those who actively marginalize people. An incredible piece of history (which includes the Space Race, Civil Rights movement, and female empowerment) well presented and anchored by strong performances (plus a few catchy Pharrell tunes), this biopic is timely, heart-warming, and a worthy depiction of three black, female pioneers.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 3

Story: 4

Acting: 4.5

Dialogue: 3.5

Editing: 3

Visuals: 3.5

Music/Score: 4

Overall Average: 3.6

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