“Hidden Figures” (2016)
Duration: 127 Minutes
Directed by Theodore Melfi
“Hidden Figures,” written and directed by Theodore Melfi, is a story that touches the stars of American history in the 1960s. This film presents the space race between America and the Soviet Union through the minds of three African American women who revolutionize women’s place in a professional world primarily dominated by male workers.
This is the true story of the lives of three women who challenged workplace inequality and made vast contributions to the space race. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) designed and solved the mathematical equation integral in sending the first man into space to orbit the earth. They work for the data analysis unit at NASA, writing and solving complicated mathematical equations based on data and the probability of the success of NASA’s mission.
The film opens in West Virginia in the year 1926, in a dim, yet complex, school hallway where a young Katherine G. Johnson names geometric shapes in a stained glass window. Her parents sit in a school teacher’s office discussing her unique range of knowledge and comprehension at such a young age. The teacher encourages them to consider sending her to a school with a more complicated curriculum.
A time jump shows Katherine with her colleagues, Dorothy and Mary, stuck on the side of a country road with the hood of their car open and arguing on their way to work that morning. The unfamiliarity between the women is evident from the way they interact with one another. While the surrounding landscape is draped in perfection, there is an overwhelming sense of anxiety at that moment. A white police officer arrives and asks for their IDs and they inform him that they work for NASA, causing him to alter the way he interacts with them. He is surprised by their positions and mentions that the United States has already won the space race. Dorothy gets the car started and the officer gives them an escort to work.
As a storyteller, Melfi does not fail to tell the root of this story, as her storytelling also creates an effortless emotional connection to these characters who are real-life heroes in space and aeronautical research.
The women work in the West Area Computing division -- separated from the rest of the Langley Research center. They do math by hand while other workers do math using a computer system that can do most of the work for them. When the team needs someone who can do analytical geometry, they ask Dorothy for help which results in her getting in trouble for knowing too much. Mary wants to be an engineer but is told she can assist the men, but not work on her own. Once they finalize their equation for the mission, the workers line up on the launch pad to welcome astronaut, John Glenn (Glen Powell), before he pilots their aircraft -- Friendship 7.
The film itself is a mathematical equation in its own way -- the story’s layers create an otherworldly investment in these women’s lives. The narrative of the United States’ space race and the early days of NASA is the central working piece at the surface of the equation. Below are layers of United States history, including civil rights, women's suffrage and gender equality in the workplace.
This film’s strength is in the voices of these women, which are powerful but calm. They are creating constellations out of numbers, balancing relationships and understanding the truth of equality. This film is proof that words have an impact when these women resist the existing norms of their workplace and ask for more opportunities for themselves.
The mission itself is a success and the women are celebrated for their work.
This film is a narrative of what it means to write your own story. From a narrative standpoint, this story must be told as many times as it takes to fall into place. As a film, this composition of shots, scenes and direction is simplistic in its execution and does not draw focus away from the story.
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