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Watching "Hidden Figures"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 6, 2017

“Hidden Figures” is a lovely little movie, a chronicle of a group of African-American women who are educated, classy and ambitious – and who achieved a tremendous amount not only for the Space Program but for themselves and other women. Their story is told simply, with some dramatic embroidery but none that pushes it into overwrought melodrama, with considerable grace and quietly effective performances.
 Adapted by Theodore Melfi (who also directed) and Allison Schroeder from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” focuses on three women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) who were computers – that is, mathematicians assigned to do complicated computations for the engineers working on space flight at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Shetterly estimates that close to one thousand women served in that capacity at Langley over the decades.
 Two of those were my mother and her sister. My father and my uncle, for that matter, were aerospace engineers at Langley. While the film used Atlanta locations, I still misted up a little at the sight of red brick buildings, signs and logos that reminded me of what it was like at Langley in my childhood.
What I don’t remember, though, is the presence of at least 50 black women who were “computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists” at Langley over the years, says Shetterly, three of them were Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, played by Henson, Spencer and Monae respectively. They had remarkable careers, detailed even more in Shetterly’s book, but the film focuses on them in 1961 and 1962, during the height of the space race and climaxing with Ohio’s own John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) becoming the first American to orbit the earth.
While their skills were much needed before electronic computers took over much of their tasks, the black women in “Hidden Figures” still face a segregated state (some schools in Virginia had closed rather than integrate.) and workplace, with white-only and “colored” bathrooms a racial marker, and men dominating the decision-making at the expense of their able female co-workers.
The details differ from the film’s: Vaughan became head of the black computers’ unit a decade before the movie begins, but the gist is there; in real life, as indicated in the movie, Vaughan’s promotion was unnecessarily delayed for two years. The movie is especially significant in its understated portrayal of villains (among them Kirsten Dunst as the computers’ boss and Jim Parsons as an obstructive engineer) and of its heroes (besides the three main characters, those include John Glenn and the space-program leader played by Kevin Costner). The women are not only good at their jobs but at their lives – where they are wives, mothers, church-goers. They know when to speak up (and do), when to keep silent and how to find ways around roadblocks.
Still, the workplace obstructions fade for the most practical of reasons: the women are smart and inventive, and, especially after Russian Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, the emphasis was on results more than on racial tradition.
The performances, meanwhile, are excellent, as underplayed as the movie as a whole, and all the more effective for it. Henson, Spencer and Monae get that they are playing ‘60s women, that this is not the place for most aggressiveness and flash; instead, the uplift comes from seeing Henson working out a complex mathematical problem, or Spencer knowing she needs a new skill, and getting it. In the end, they and “Hidden Figures” move us because of what they know, what they do – and society’s finally discovering how much they are needed.

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