Hidden Figures Parent Review
This engaging underdog story provides an excellent opportunity to discuss issues of racial and gender prejudice -- and, if you're a space nerd, the competition between the US and Soviets too.
In the early days of NASA, getting a man into space required something that wasn’t yet invented: A computer. The Americans could have waited for them for a couple more years, but with the Russians already ahead in the race with Sputnik and other experimental flights, the pressure was too intense.
In order to perform the necessary advanced calculations, the government agency hired human computers—specifically humans highly gifted in solving complex mathematical problems. But there simply weren’t enough skilled people in the populace, or at least the white populace, to fill the requirements. So, during a time when black integration was a very contested topic, and with their research lab located in Langley, Virginia (a hotbed of racial prejudice), NASA was forced to recruit people of color to fill the positions. Even more notable, many of these arithmetic whizzes were not only black, they were women.
Hidden Figures shines the spotlight on three of these amazing individuals: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) started high school at age 10 and had degrees in Mathematics and French by 18 years of age. Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer) graduated from college at 19, joined Langley in 1943, and went on to head the West Computing Group—the segregated black, female number-crunchers. Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) was a Virginia local with degrees in Mathematics and Physical Sciences, specializing in wind tunnel experiments and aircraft data. Yet for all their credentials, these women labored through countless calculations in an isolated basement office in a remote area of the campus. Notwithstanding, their efforts were instrumental in getting Alan Shepard into space and heralding the United States’ first successful human launch.
But Shepard’s 15-minute sub-orbital flight had been proceeded less than a month earlier by a more impressive 108-minute orbital voyage by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. To prove their ability to do likewise, the American’s focused on John Glenn’s mission for a multi-orbit flight that would last several hours. Stressed to find more resources, NASA supervisor Vivian Michael (a presumably fictitious character played by Kirsten Dunst) calls upon Vaughn to suggest candidates from the West Computing Group to fill vacant roles within white-only areas. Johnson is the first to be invited to join the Space Task Group, the domain of the top aeronautic engineers led by a demanding boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).
Mary Jackson’s rise doesn’t come as quickly. To be considered for employment in her dream job, she is told she needs to take additional courses that are only offered during the evening at white high school. Getting permission to attend means she must first file a formal petition at the courthouse. Her long journey eventually lead to her become NASA’s first black female engineer.
But attitudes aren’t the only thing beginning to change in society. With the expected arrival of NASA’s first IBM machine, Dorothy Vaughan realizes the massive computer will render many human staff obsolete. Determined to stay relevant, Dorothy takes upon herself the challenge of learning how to program the beast, as well as the responsibility to pass this knowledge onto her team. Soon she and her cohorts have indispensable skills that bring them into the bright sterile realm of the electronic computer.
This story is artfully blended with irony that helps audiences understand the challenges of the times. For instance, Katherine must walk close to a mile to use the only restroom authorized for black employees. Jackson, wearing the kind of shoes mandatory in the women’s dress code, gets her heel stuck in a grate during a wind tunnel experiment. And Vaughan inferior status means she can’t enter the out-of-bounds computing room to test her programming skills unless she’s willing to sneak in. Even in their home community respect is hard to find, with men questioning both their abilities and career ambitions.
Gratefully, there are few reasons to not share this engaging underdog story with older children and teens. With just a handful of mild profanities, the script provides an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss issues of racial and gender prejudice. Set at the crossroads of black integration, Soviet vs US aggression and the early days of women in the workplace, Hidden Figures is a time capsule of personal fears, biases and hopes that just happen to collide within the NASA environment. For space nerds like myself, that just adds to the interest of this tale! This one small step for three black women is one large step for anyone who has faced discrimination.Directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe. Running time: 127 minutes. Theatrical release January 13, 2017. Updated January 25, 2017
Get details on profanity, sex and violence in Hidden Figures here.
Hidden Figures Parents Guide
How has society’s perceptions of race and gender differences changed since the 1950s and 60s, the era in which this movie is set. Do you think there is still room for improvement in issues of prejudice? Have you ever felt discriminated against? If so, for what reason?