Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hidden Figures

Plot: Hidden Figures tells the stories of three black women who worked at NASA during the 1960's Mercury missions as computational mathematicians. Katherine (Taraji Henson) solved difficult orbital mechanics problems. She is a widow; we meet her kids and a potential husband. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) supervised a group of other mathematicians and early computer programmers. Mary (Janelle Monae) overcame Jim Crow segregation to become a professional engineer at NASA.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Hidden Figures is a positive and uplifting story about three black women in 1960's Virginia who overcome obstacles and accomplish something. It is a reminder of how backwards the 1960's were in terms of race relations and women's rights. Simultaneously somehow, it shines a spotlight on how many of these things remain the same.  Director Melfi talks about how the time has become right for this story to be told.

It is easy to cheer when the women overcome each small obstacle. The story is told with some humor and patience. I liked that there was a little mathematics too, including Euler's method for solving a differential equation. (I suspect they must have done this with the IBM, but perhaps they really did do that by hand -- a long rote calculation.)

Taraji Henson's Katherine is the main story. Her performance was great: both emotional and subtle. The other two woman's stories subplots were somewhat stand alone. I liked Janelle Monae's energy, and she sends a more political message that works dramatically and as a social message.

It is nice to see black women were able to overcome so much back in the 60's. I was thinking about how much segregation existed 97 years after the Civil War. Now it is 152 years after the Civil War, and slavery's social residue remains yet.

Overall I enjoyed watching it, and I learned things too. I will probably buy the book on tape to learn more. 

Cast: Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner

Directed by:
Theodore Melfi

Written by:
Allison Schroeder & director Melfi wrote the screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly 

The Music:
Many good R&B songs by Pharrell Williams. There were two slow songs by costar Janelle Monae -- not her best stuff. 

The Visuals:
The best part of the visuals is the period setting including the old time space capsules that looks so much like somebody's science project. No fancy special effects. They do a lot with chalk on a blackboard.

4.0 stars: I liked it. Makes you think. With a happy ending that makes you feel good. 

Why is it a 4.0 star movie and not 3.5 stars? It is not a perfect movie because the three stories play a little like an anthology. Taraji Henson deserves an Oscar, but Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner not so much. I liked Janelle Monae, and I am going to forgive her 2010's sensibility.

On the bright side, Hidden Figures is an interesting and important story about overcoming injustice. It is also fun to watch.

The rating depends on how much you value the social message against acting & film craft.

In 2016, I have two four star movies, Doctor Strange and Girl on the Train -- very different movies from each other and from this one.

I tipped toward 4 stars since the other top movies this year were so fluffy. 

More: 1961's America was seventeen years past WWII, and the ethic of national unity against foreign powers was strong. I liked the seriousness and dedication of the society at the time. We could use more of that.

Even More: I wonder how much of the story is amped up for Hollywood. Was there really a hold in the countdown while the landing calculations were checked? Did the NASA administrator really pull down the Colored Women's bathroom sign with a crowbar? Did Katherine really run 1/2 mile to the bathroom? It makes me want to read the book.