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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures was one of the most popular movies of 2016. As of this writing, it has earned $119.4 million, won 2 Golden Globes, and is nominated for three Oscars. Should you go to see it, too? The answer is yes.

Hidden Figures was based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is the story of three African-American women who were pioneers in the history of NASA – Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).

It all begins in the 1920s with a very young Katherine. She is a math prodigy who must leave her home to go to high school, because the local high school is only for white children. Later, we see her taking classes with boys that are much older than her and surpassing them all.

We fast forward to 1961. Katherine is now an adult. She’s sitting in a stalled car with her coworkers, fellow African-American women. When a white police officer pulls alongside them, things quickly turn tense. A situation that could turn ugly has a happy ending. When the officer finds out they work for NASA, he is so impressed that he gives them an escort to work.

This episode encapsulates how they rise. With equal amounts of charm, subversiveness, and boldness they raise themselves and others.

They are human computers – people who do advanced mathematical calculations with nothing more than pencils, paper, slide rules, and adding machines. But these ladies have aspirations. Katherine wants to work on rocket trajectories for the upcoming space launch. Dorothy wants to be a programmer. Mary wants to be an engineer. The question isn’t,  “Is society ready for African-American women to do these jobs?”

 The correct question is, “Can society afford not to have these women do these jobs?” Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are going to do it anyway. None of them will let segregation laws stand in their way. Each of them fight back in different ways: Katherine through sheer persistence, Dorothy through quiet subversion, and Mary with bold outspokenness.

You will notice all the little details grounding it in the 1960s – CorningWare dishes, gold-rimmed drinking glasses, televisions encased in wood. But there are other details that are not as benign – the signs marked “colored” and “white.” The very structures of the buildings don’t support women. The lack of “colored” restrooms in certain buildings are a way of keeping African-Americans out.

This film does a great job of explaining the science and math needed to send a man into orbit and bring him back to Earth safely. Film is a visual medium, of course, and that’s how the science and math is translated to the audience. It’s in the props. The human computers sit at their desks with large stacks of paper and clunky adding machines. The mathematicians do their calculations at chalkboards so tall that ladders are needed to reach every inch of its surface. This shows the viewer the depth of the work involved in their jobs.

Hidden Figures is worth the hype. Every single word of praise this film has received is deserved. This film should be screened in every classroom and lecture hall; it is American history. Hidden Figures shows us an aspect of American history that has been ignored for far too long. This is the secret history of NASA: African-American women who performed so much important work and received so little credit.

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