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Rated 3.03 stars
by 109 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Surprising and Uplifting
by Diana Saenger

Those who read my movie reviews know I love films based on true stories. Many of them often amaze me because I have not heard the story before. Hidden Figures relates the crucial history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped with the space race against America’s rivals in the Soviet Union. These well-educated and brilliant African-American women had a mission to have equal rights and opportunities -- and they didn’t give up. After taking jobs at NASA, they played key roles in NASA’s 1069 Project Mercury, the first Apollo 11 launch to the moon with John Glenn (Glenn Powell).

Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, the film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.

Physicist Katherine Johnson plots orbits and calculates flight trajectories for Project Mercury. This is a surprise to many of the male engineers, who can’t figure out how to solve launch problems, and annoys Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group.

When there’s a serious problem, Harrison soon learns to by-pass his male engineers and go right to Katherine, who solves mechanical problems with her math skills. Harrison is not the only one to recognize her genius. After several critical mishaps, John Glenn also begins calling on her first  to seek a solution.

It takes a while for Dorothy Vaughan to prove her worth, but eventually she becomes the first African-American woman to be promoted as Head of Personnel at NASA (formerly named NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics).

Along with her friends Dorothy and Katherine, mathematician Mary Jackson won’t give up. Despite her sex and race, she pursues a job that requires a court challenge of segregation law. She wins and becomes an aerospace engineer at NASA. Awkward at first and even having to leave buildings to go a long way to the “black ladies restroom” in another building, these women succeed in their jobs.

Because it was 1949 many men who might have taken these jobs were fighting in WWII. However, these women never gave up and worked harder than some of the men.

Hidden Figures is inspiring and perfectly directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), who said, For all its joys and triumphs, Hidden Figures is also a film that takes place at the crossroads of the most defining struggles in American history:  the evolving fight for Civil Rights; the battle to win the high-stakes Cold War without risking nuclear war and be the first superpower to establish a human presence outside planet Earth; and the ongoing drive to show how the mind-boggling technological breakthroughs that create the world’s future have nothing to do with gender or background.” 

The cast is also amazing. Each actor brings her character to life on screen.

FACTS ABOUT THE REAL WOMEN PROTRAYED IN THE MOVIE.  Even before NASA saw their untapped genius, these women were astonishingly special.

Katherine Johnson was a West Virginia phenom who started high school at 10 and graduated with degrees in Mathematics and French at 18 before becoming one of the first to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University, starting at Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton in 1953. While she was working for NASA, she was also a single mother raising three children. Johnson felt driven by her curiosity about the world, and never drew attention to herself as a heroine. “If someone asked me to solve a problem, I did it. But I wanted to know the importance of what we were doing.  If we were doing a calculation, I wanted to know: What is this for?  Why is it vital?”

Taraji P. Henson said, “Now we know there were amazing women behind how John Glenn came to orbit the earth in space and we finally get to hear their story. It was as if Katherine had every obstacle stacked against her, and yet nothing at all could stop her. That was one of her gifts and that is her legacy. “I’m a girl who grew up in the ‘hood’ and all I ever had was dreams. I felt honored just to have this chance to portray a woman like Katherine.

Dorothy Vaughan, equally accomplished, was a Missourian who graduated from college at 19 and worked as a math teacher before joining Langley in 1943.  She quickly became the head of the West Computing group. Vaughan, who passed away in 2008, continued to work with NASA for most of her life.

Octavia Spencer felt a magnetic attraction to playing Vaughan, in part because she couldn’t believe her astonishing story isn’t more widely known. “I was drawn to the fact that we haven’t known about the contributions these brilliant NASA women made to our advancement and to the space race. I’m really hopeful that after seeing this story, there will be girls in the world who will realize just how much value they have.” 

Mary Jackson was a local from Hampton, Virginia with degrees in Physical Science and Mathematics.  She rose to Aerospace Engineer after joining Langley in 1951, specializing in wind tunnel experiments and aircraft data, always using her position to help others.

Pop star Janelle Monáe was fueled by the hope of doing the women of West Computing justice.  “To be part of telling this history was so motivating to me,” said Monáe.  “These women literally changed the world by allowing the first astronaut to orbit earth.  From the time I received the script and was asked to audition, there was nothing more important to me than taking on the role of Mary Jackson.”

(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG” for thematic elements and some language.)

Review also posted at

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