'Hidden Figures' is good, but could have added up to more

Black women who helped put America in space get their day onscreen
'Hidden Figures' shines light on forgotten African-American women of NASA (review, photos, video)

06 January, 2017

Jackson is shown in the film to be the fighter, the one who willingly challenged racial and sexual barriers, whereas Vaughn is depicted as someone who was always looking out for the women she was in charge of. The idea that we get a chance to actually go back and shine a light on the fantastic accomplishments of these women - and African-American women, you know.

When a critic dubs a film a crowd-pleaser, it's generally not meant as a compliment, or at the least, it's a backhanded one.

And the remarkable fact that their story is finally out of the shadows while the central characters are alive to appreciate the gesture makes "Hidden Figures" all the more endearing.

But here, they're minor.

"I think the most important thing to get right historically [for] this movie was the real story about these three women and be true to their experience, both the struggles they had as well as the successes they had", said Bill Barry, NASA's historian.

If you believe women of color are capable of genius and deserving of respect, you will be suitably outraged when their white colleagues deny them with a sneer, and will cheer when they triumph over their setbacks.

"We hope that this story will inspire many young people to pursue education and their dreams", Barry says.

As if to ensure the 2016 Oscar nominations don't come out as white as Santa's beard, three fine films about African-Americans in the late '50s and early '60s have come out in the last eight weeks: "Loving", "Fences" and "Hidden Figures".

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That's thanks to its three core performances. The talented trio at the heart of the film - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe - just happen to be style stars, too.

As the United States raced against Russian Federation to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in US history.

That's not to say this is patronizing fodder on the order of "The Blind Side" or even "The Help", far from it. Vaughan teaches herself the Fortran language necessary to operate the center's new IBM mainframe.

Mary Jackson spent 34 years on the job at NASA as a mathematician and aeronautical engineer. The movie pairs a strong female-empowerment message with heady themes and feel-good vibes.

But in the first half of the 20th century, Johnson was penned in by stereotypes about her race and her gender, as well as Jim Crow laws that mandated the segregation of African-Americans. And whenever she speaks, everyone looks at her like she's a dog who's just started reciting Shakespeare.

Hidden Figures come out this Friday. The waste is painful to contemplate, and so it's right that movies to celebrate where they can. Drawn from NASA's legendary "Right Stuff" days, at the height of the "Space Race", it's so little known that even members of the cast were unaware of it prior to reading the script. Be sure to stick around for the credits that offer snapshots of the actual women and give an update on their careers; Katherine Goble (now Johnson) received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Reach the reporter at bvandenburgh@gannett.com or 602-444-8371. From Kevin Costner as NASA manager Al Harrison, the leader of the Space Flight Group; Jim Parsons as team lead Paul Stafford; Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Michael, supervisor for the NASA support staff; Mahershala Ali as Katherine's love interest; Aldis Hodge as Mary Jackson's husband; all the way to Glen Powell as astronaut John Glenn.

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