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Hidden Figures (2016)

Josh Reviews Hidden Figures

February 3rd, 2017
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Hidden Figures, based on the recent book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the true story of three pioneering African-American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  These three remarkable women worked for NASA in the 1960’s and beyond.  Katherine Johnson calculated the launch windows and trajectories for many of the flights for Project Mercury, including Alan Shephard’s first American manned spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn’s first American orbit of the Earth in 1962.  She was later involved in the moon landings.  Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted to being a head of personnel at NASA, and she became a leader in computer programming, mastering the FORTRAN coding language of the early electronic computers at NASA.  Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American woman engineer, winning a court case in order to be allowed to take classes at a whites-only school that were necessary in order for her to qualify for that engineer position.

HiddenFigures

The film Hidden Figures tells the story of the friendship between these three African-American women, and chronicles the years between 1957-1962 in which they, and other African-American women, played key roles in the groundbreaking work being done at NASA that resulted in Alan Shephard and Scott Glenn’s historic flights in 1961-62, and eventually in the United States’ winning the race to land on the moon.

This is an incredible story, and a very important one that has been mostly ignored by the many historical accounts of the space race in the sixties.  I’m delighted that Ms. Shetterly’s book, and now this film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Mr. Melfi, is telling this story.

The power of this true story carries the film, and makes Hidden Figures an enjoyable film even though I often felt the incredible true story was let down by the filmmaking choices.

I saw Hidden Figures soon after seeing Manchester by the Sea, a film that was striking in its naturalism — that film felt so viscerally real, with fully-fleshed-out characters and dialogue that felt honest and realistic to how people really talk and behave.  Hidden Figures, by contrast, felt to me to be full of scenes that felt declarative and fake, scenes whose purpose was to make a point or to ensure the audience understood something, rather than reflecting the way anyone actually would talk or act.  Take an early scene with Mary, in which we see her with a group of engineers testing a capsule in a wind-tunnel.  Mary’s supervisor encourages her to become an engineer, and Mary responds with a very blunt statement, saying something like: “I’m a Negro woman, no one will let me become … [continued]