"Hidden Figures" has, to date, grossed some $66 million in the U.S. alone. That's not bad for a film that had an estimated $25 million production budget. Following is the review of that film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Most of us think we have a fairly good sense of history. After all, it is a subject that’s taught as early as kindergarten.
Traditionally, though, school lessons don’t cover the whole story. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the world was going through any number of societal upheavals: the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the growing conflict in a far-away place called Vietnam.
Yet my teachers kept us busy learning about the Mayflower Compact and the American Revolution, offering sanitized lessons on Westward expansion and the Civil War, memorizing dates and the names of men who did great things – mostly men anyway, and, yes, mostly white men. What got largely ignored were the people who implemented those great men’s plans, people seldom if ever mentioned in the history books we lugged around.
Today’s historians, though, are delving into the more obscure parts of history and, as in the case of author Margot Lee Shetterly, are sharing stories that until now have been hiding more or less in plain sight.
Shetterly wrote a nonfiction book, the subject of which is summed up succinctly in its subtitle: “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” Fond of brevity, the movie producers who optioned Shetterly’s book deleted everything but the first two words. And they gave the job of adapting the story to screenwriter Allison Schroeder and writer-director Theodore Melfi.
What resulted from the collaboration is a version of Shetterly’s story, one that was well known to those who worked for the U.S. space agency NASA during its first years – dating from the summer of 1958 on – but virtually unknown to the general public.
Keying on the lives of three specific women – played by Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer and Janelle Monáe – “Hidden Figures” explains how that trio – and dozens of other African-American women – played an important role in helping to develop the Mercury 7 project, which was the U.S.’s response to Russia’s own space program. Its immediate goal? To launch an American astronaut into orbit.
Katherine Goble (later Johnson), the woman portrayed by Henson, was a math whiz employed as a so-called “computer.” Her work was especially important in the days before electronic computers took over such tasks. Spencer and Monáe also portray real-life figures, one of whom sued to win the right to study engineering at a formerly all-white school.
Typical of Hollywood, “Hidden Figures” can’t escape Big-Moment melodrama. This is especially obvious in scenes where characters played by white actors such as Kevin Costner experience a sense of awakening racial consciousness. Thankfully, those scenes are balanced with others that depict a better feel for emotional authenticity, whether portraying shameful sequences of segregation (such as Johnson’s character not being able to use a whites-only restroom) or smaller personal studies of family intimacy.
Whatever its problems, though, the story that “Hidden Figures” unveils is one that needs to be told. It wasn’t only great men who built America.
It was all of us.