Hidden Figures: An underdog story with heart

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Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician and physicist who helped NASA win the
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician and physicist who helped NASA win the "Space Race" in the 1960s. Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
127 minutes
Released January 2017
Rated PG (for thematic elements and some language)

What makes us root for the underdog? Why, it’s the strength of character and sheer determination that gets them to their destination. Based on a true story, Hidden Figures was a surprise hit-with critics and audiences alike-as it tells how three underdogs prevailed against twin obstacles: they are women and they are black, and in the Sixties, either of those facts was apt to be a handicap-a big one.

Katherine Johnson (the inimitable Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are talented mathematicians, all of them employed by NASA as “computers” (that is, support staff entrusted with mathematical computations). Their rank and recognition are limited by the twin facts of gender and skin tone. They certainly aren’t insensible to that fact: “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line. Every time.” But they don’t let it stop them, not for a minute.

They make utterly winning heroines: they are smart, funny, self-confident, admirably tenacious, and yes, beautiful, too. They win over doubters- including colleagues, a frosty HR manager (Kirsten Dunst), a husband in one case and a new wooer (Mahershala Ali) in another. They earn the trust and respect of everyone, from astronaut John Glenn to the program head played by Kevin Costner. And they do it all with irrepressible verve and good humour. The result is an upbeat story about overcoming obstacles. When Mary is asked, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” she replies without hesitation: “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.” The secret of the story’s success lies primarily in the dauntless perseverance of its three heroines.

And the film has another thing going for it. The Sixties indisputably had its share of troubles and strife, racial and otherwise; but, in the rearview mirror of history, it feels like a sunnier, more optimistic time than the one we inhabit now, a time when JFK’s stirring words set lofty goals for mankind.

The space race may have been born of superpower rivalry, but it came to embody a nobler struggle-man’s determination to overcome daunting odds, to do what seemed impossible. Setting the goal (of putting an American in orbit, followed a few years later by putting a man on the moon) entailed a leap of faith: after that came the Herculean struggle to overcome overwhelming scientific and engineering challenges to make the dream a reality. And that’s what Hidden Figures is all about-making dreams a reality-be it the career aspirations of these three gifted women, or the symbolic weight their success had for others (women and African-Americans alike) or the space program’s immediate challenge of building hardware that would withstand the rigours of reentry into the atmosphere and cracking the mathematical code for the trajectory that would take the intrepid astronauts there and safely back again. Among its many nominations and awards, Hidden Figures was nominated for three Academy Awards, as Best Film, Supporting Actress (Spencer) and Adapted Screenplay.

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John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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