Brilliant minds rise above prejudice by Richard Jones

A look at Hidden Figures (PG)

hiddenIT’S amazing how films can prompt movie-goers into discovering stories they had absolutely no knowledge of two hours earlier.

So it is with Theodore Melfi’s moving story about three African-American women whose intellectual brilliance helped put a man into space and, ultimately, on the moon.

Although he’s squeezed the time frame a little the story begins on the NASA campus in Virginia in 1961.

The oldest woman of the trio is computer genius Dorothy Vaughan who actually started work at NASA’s forerunner in 1943, but for Melfi’s adaptation she’s still hard at work when the other two arrive a decade-and-a-half later.

And when I say she’s a genius with computers we’re talking about an IBM giant which, in 1961, fills an entire room!

The other two inspiring African-American women are calculus and analytic geometry whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson, once a NYPD detective from creepy TV series Person Of Interest) and aspiring aeronautical engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).

They drive into work at NASA each day in a clapped-out car owned by Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and then take up their places in the small army of scientists, mathematicians and engineers striving to be the first to put a man into orbit around the planet.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) is the pilot named by NASA to achieve the feat for the United States, but there’s a mountain of calculations and engineering fine-tuning to plough through first.

Katherine is plucked out of the West Computing building, where all the African-American women work, and joins the elite Space Task Group headed up by gruff Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).

Again Melfi has done some fiddling here. Harrison is a composite, fictional character based on real-life Robert Gilruth.

It doesn’t matter too much. Harrison has one of the most-remembered scenes in the movie when he finds out why Katherine takes such a long time on her breaks.

It’s because the “coloured’ ladies lavatory and washroom is 20 minutes away, on the other side of the campus. Melfi includes the dramatic scene where Harrison demolishes the “coloured’ toilet sign with a sledge-hammer, completely desegregating NASA in one giant leap for womankind.

Nonetheless the “coloured’ sticker still remains on her coffee mug in the Space Task Group where she has to contend with Harrison’s lieutenant, snarly Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, who’s Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory).

Stafford is terrified of a woman with a much firmer hold on calculus than his own. You get the feeling that it was Paul who’d taped the “coloured’ sticker to Katherine’s coffee mug.

Mary, meanwhile, has her own battles with the system. She’s determined to further her engineering qualifications, but extra studies can only be achieved by going to classes in a whites-only local high school.

Another of the classic scenes ensues. She approaches the bench in the district courtroom where a judge is hearing the case about whether she should be admitted to the classes she aspires to.

After Mary outlines the judge’s struggles to rise from “the other side of the tracks” and become the first from his family to reach college education, then ultimately to a prestige judicial appointment, His Honour hands down his decision.

Mary will be allowed to attend “whites only” evening classes.

And it’s not all smooth sailing either for computer pioneer Dorothy. She has to battle with departmental supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who, as a sort of gatekeeper, refuses Dorothy’s extra pay as her underling thereby denying her promotion and the additional dollars that would bring.

There’s a bit of romance thrown in, too, not out of place considering this is the Kennedy era in the US.

As Hidden Figures winds down, we have Glenn striding purposefully towards the space ship which, in early 1962, will make him the first American to orbit the planet.

Melfi has one last card to play. Astronaut Glenn gets on the phone from the launch pad, high in the sky, to Al Harrison in the central control room.

He’s not certain the re-entry calculations are correct. After a certain number of circumnavigations of Earth has the Harrison team got the final sums right?

“Get that very smart woman from your team to add everything up,” he instructs the Space Task Group boss.

So Katherine re-works and re-checks the calculations from Dorothy’s IBM team and when Glenn is sure that the “go/no-go zone” maths is spot-on he steps aboard Friendship 7, buckles in and starts on his historic pioneering mission: three orbits of the earth, not seven as popular mythology would have us accept.

Hidden Figures was one of nine films nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. Octavia Spencer was one of five candidates in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category.




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