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Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

January 31, 2017

Hidden Figures: A Triumphant Look Back into NASA and Civil Rights History

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I am by no means a space history buff. That said, I believe I know some very basic stuff: Alan Shepard was the first American into space, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men on the moon. Importantly, I know that none of those men died on their respective missions. Very basic stuff.  So the fact that Hidden Figures had me on the edge of my seat wondering if John Glenn would survive re-entry into the atmosphere is a real testament to the film.

I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself. As cool as the space stuff near the end of director Theodore Melfi’s film is, Hidden Figures is about a lot more than John Glenn’s glamorous photoshoots and successful mission. Hidden Figures is about turbulent work in the praise-deprived recesses of NASA during the racially-charged early 60’s.

The “based on true events” movie centers around three African American women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who played key roles in sending both Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space. Johnson was a “computer,” performing and checking complex analytical geometry problems for Langley’s Space Task Group, while Vaughan became the supervisor of NASA’s at-the-time new IBM machine and Jackson became NASA’s first female African-American engineer.

I was simply blown away by all three main characters. The depth of their sadness, frustration and eventual triumph are so incredibly visceral that it’s hard not to feel for the women. Although Octavia Spencer received an Oscar nomination for her performance in a supporting role, for me this film was a Taraji P. Henson tour de force, though she would have had to be nominated in the leading role category. The raw emotion exhibited by Henson and the other two leads in Hidden Figures is nothing short of remarkable. The trio fought tooth and nail to get a leg up during the Jim Crow era and their sense of rootedness and grit is both relatable and infectious.

The leads aren’t where the magic stops either! Supporting actors like Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst were also fantastic in their roles. Watching Costner’s character warm up to Henson’s was a touching and impressively handled character arc. Even very minor roles, like those of Glen Powell and Olek Krupa, only served to make the movie more realistic and heartfelt.

Not only is the acting exemplary, but the story itself is fascinating. It’s one of tension and tribulation; one of rocky racial relations and finally, one of incredible inspiration. It was a story that I— and I’d wager a lot of other people— had never heard of, and now that it’s out there it’s hard to imagine this tale ever being swept under history’s rug.

Perhaps what I like most about this movie is that it doesn’t offer easy ways “out,” like some lesser films. You know what I mean? There was nothing to “take me out” of the movie. There were none of those silly, simple mistakes that impugn the film’s believability. Everything on screen struck me as entirely appropriate for the time. This movie doesn’t conclude with the “end” of racism as many films dealing with race are prone to do. On the contrary, it embraces the women’s precarious position going forward. This decision doesn’t take away from an uplifting ending but serves to give the work a more believable aftertaste.

That’s about all I can think to say about the movie and I’m dangerously close to running out of colorful adjectives. Go see Hidden Figures. This one’s worth watching.

Nicholas Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nks53@cornell.edu

One thought on “Hidden Figures: A Triumphant Look Back into NASA and Civil Rights History

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