Review by Ron Graham (Twitter:@RonGraham1)
Hidden Figures (2016) PG
Director: Ted Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer
If there’s one thing this story tells us, it’s that the body of what we don’t understand is deep and wide.
And if there are two things America has a long tradition of not understanding, it’s technology…and each other. “Hidden Figures” uses its whole two hours to remind us of how little we understand, and of the rewards of really giving it our best effort.
The backdrop is a Virginia in the 1960s, during which segregation is the law. And even the most well-meaning of white citizens have so normalized that social structure that they honestly believe they have nothing against the black folks who have to use separate bathrooms, water fountains and entrances to public buildings. There’s a scene in this film where Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst sum up that feeling in just a couple short, powerful lines.
And on the other side of society is a Sputnik satellite orbiting the earth. Believe me when I tell you that the capabilities of Sputnik 1 weren’t much more than telling the Russians where it was. (Click here.) But we didn’t know that – even NASA didn’t know it. And many Americans, black and white alike, were in fear, thinking that because there was a Sputnik, the Russians could spy on us in our homes.
The real significance of Sputnik was that it was a test of the ability to launch rockets into earth orbit, and once that’s done, mankind could put people in space… and weapons. There was a feeling in our government that the first nation to space would make the rules for all the rest. And that was why President Kennedy lit a fire under NASA to place a man on the moon:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
With that background, we rushed to develop new technology, even new mathematics, never used before. The setting of the movie is that NASA had a battalion of black women, called “computers,” checking complex calculations – because there were no automated computers yet to do it. The characters played by Henson (a mathematician and whiz in analytic geometry), Monae (an engineer – among the first female engineers in this country), and Spencer (a supervisor of computer techs) rose to the top in this setting.
It wasn’t easy, oh no. Henson had to use a colored ladies’ restroom almost half a mile away from her workspace because that was where she was allowed to go. Monae had to go to court to seek permission to take extension classes from a white school in order to qualify for engineering employment. And Spencer had to teach herself FORTRAN. It was a new programming language at the time. I learned it as a freshman in college, and it had been around for a while by then. But becoming self-taught in FORTRAN is a major effort – especially with no Web tutorials to help.
And the rest of NASA Langley Space Center – let by Kevin Costner in this film – had to come to grips with the fact that the white men who ran NASA WERE NOT ENOUGH. Not enough skill, not enough experience, not enough time – to get ready for the Mercury Seven, who were training to be our first astronauts. Once again, new math. New engineering. New knowledge and experience needed. And to become enough, we had to accept that knowledge and experience wherever we could get it, no matter what that might mean to our social structure. For this film, it meant no more segregated bathrooms – and no more segregated coffee pots.
The film uses two particularly interesting images to communicate how little NASA really understood what it was getting into: first, a wind tunnel, firing more than just empty air at a Mercury capsule so we could visualize air flow around the capsule – and the weaknesses in its heat shield. And second, a tall chalkboard with a ladder – that Henson had to climb to display complex calculations. Math is hard to make exciting on the big screen, I know – but there is something about the way the rest of the NASA engineers looked at those calculations, felt a dawn of new understanding, and marveled. For what that meant to the first Mercury missions, I will refer you to the history books, and tell you to watch the movie.
Sure, it’s a movie. But it’s also a history. One full of promise. All we have to do to fulfill that promise in our generation, and in generations to come, is to remember that there are new challenges ahead. New understanding needed. And we – alone – ARE NOT ENOUGH.
4.5 of 5 stars.
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