[Screen It]


(2016) (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer) (PG)

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Drama: Three African-American women must contend with racism and sexism in the early 1960s as they work for NASA and its attempts to put astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
It's 1961 and Katherine G. Johnson (TARAJI P. HENSON), Dorothy Vaughan (OCTAVIA SPENCER) and Mary Jackson (JANELLE MONAE) are African-American women working for NASA at its Hampton, VA base. Dorothy runs the "Colored Computers" division, although she's yet to be designated as the supervisor, something she brings up with her white and somewhat racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (KIRSTEN DUNST).

Mary is the most outspoken of the three and wishes to be an engineer, something her white supervisor, Karl Zielinski (OLEK KRUPA), agrees with, but she learns she suddenly doesn't have enough education and must attend additional classes. The only problem is that they'll be taught in an all white class and the state of Virginia won't allow her to attend, something not lost on her husband, Levi (ALDIS HODGE), who believes their kids should be shown that sort of racism that's still facing them.

Katherine is a widowed mom of three kids who lives with her mom. She's just been assigned to the Space Task Group to analyze and crunch numbers for Director Al Harrison (KEVIN COSTNER) who's under pressure to keep up with the Russians in terms of putting a man in space. Those working for Al -- be that his assistant Ruth (KIMBERLY QUINN) or mathematician Paul Stafford (JIM PARSONS) -- don't look kindly on Katherine suddenly being in their group.

And while she must also contend with sexism from outside the walls of NASA -- initially from Col. Jim Johnson (MAHERSHALA ALI) of the National Guard who's taken a liking to her but underestimates her intelligence -- she gets a big ally in the form of astronaut John Glenn (GLEN POWELL) who wants the smartest person running the numbers regarding putting him into orbit. As the women go about their jobs and how that affects their personal lives, they must contend with the sexism and systematic racism that complicate their efforts.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
During my ten-plus years of doing TV production for the U.S. Senate, I had the opportunity to meet plenty of legendary politicians, a number of visiting celebrities, and find myself in some unique places (the White House cabinet room with everyone in attendance) and situations (Michael Jackson showing up in the Rose Garden with George Bush).

One of the nicest and most significant aspects of that was working with the late John Glenn. While he was "just" a U.S. Senator at that point in his life and today's kids probably only know him as some "dude" they learned about in history class, the guy was an American hero and space exploration legend.

Of course, while he and the rest of the astronauts of his era received all of the praise, accolades, and parades, there were thousands of people behind the scenes at NASA and elsewhere that did all of the background grunt work to make Glenn's amazing achievements possible.

What's quite remarkable is that some of those people just so happened to be African-American women working in early 1960s Virginia. While the aforementioned students of today might not see anything that special in that, they likely forget that all women of that era faced sexism in the workplace and those of color still lived and worked in the still highly segregated South.

The tale of three such women and their contributions to putting John Glenn into orbit are the focus of "Hidden Figures," a highly satisfying period drama named not just for those working behind the scenes, but also the next-level, high-end math and related smarts needed to pull off a huge victory in America's space race against Russia.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly -- and that's been adapted by writer/director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder -- the slightly longer than two-hour film focuses on three African-American women who worked in NASA's "colored computers" (meaning those of color who computed numbers by hand) department.

The central of the three (as noted by her getting the only introductory prologue showing her smarts as a young girl) is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a widowed mother of three who lives with her mom. She suddenly finds herself the odd duck out, so to speak, in the all-white, all-male (save for the lone female office manager) Space Task Force division that's been tasked, natch, with putting astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit.

While one of her new colleagues (played by Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" fame) isn't pleased to have her around (especially due to her being tasked with double-checking his calculation numbers), the big boss (Kevin Costner) is, especially when she proves she's even smarter than everyone already believes.

Octavia Spencer plays her friend and colleague Dorothy Vaughan who runs the computers operation but isn't given the title or pay of being the supervisor by her boss (Kirsten Dunst) who claims she isn't racist, but obviously has tinges of that sort of mindset. And then there's Mary Jackson (played by Janelle MonŠe), the most outspoken of the three who wants to be NASA's first African-American female engineer, but must contend with various racist roadblocks in her way.

Various subplots and related characters are also in place, but the story mainly focuses on the women and their attempts to get the job done while overcoming the sexism and racism facing them. Of course, they need some help along the way, and a scene where Costner's character desegregates the ladies room is particularly satisfying. Smartly (and thankfully), his portrayal is not that of the white savior figure common in many Hollywood movies about non-male, non-white characters. Instead, he's just a man trying to get the job done and he doesn't see gender or skin color.

While some viewers and/or critics might not like or appreciate Melfi and Schroeder inserting varying degrees of comedy into the characters and proceedings, that clearly helps what could have been a very dry and intellectual experience be more accessible to the masses who are likely less interested in the numbers than the ladies manipulating them.

I really enjoyed this film, from the writing and direction to the performances and various tech credits. And considering it could be an inspirational calling card for girls and kids of all colors to brandish their smarts in the world of science and math, that only makes it all the better. Engaging and entertaining from start to finish and likely to have received Glenn's seal of approval, "Hidden Figures" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 22, 2016 / Posted December 30, 2016

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