Black women break space race barriers in ‘Hidden Figures’

by RYAN FITZGERALD//Staff Writer

Following last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the 2017 slate of Academy Award nominations bring about a more diverse corps of actors and films.

  Nominations included a record six African American actors, as well as several high-quality films with minority leads, including “Moonlight,” “Fences,” and the much deserved “Hidden Figures.”

“Hidden Figures” illustrates the true story which focuses on the lives of three African American women working in Hampton, Virginia at NASA’s Langley Research Center – two as mathematicians and one as their supervisor – who, despite a system littered with prejudice and racial hindrances, break the glass ceiling to become three of the most influential employees in the history of the national space program.  The film continues to detail the progression and impact the women had behind the scenes of the Cold War-induced Space Race, which climaxes with the Friendship 7 space launch of John Glenn, becoming the first astronaut to orbit Earth.

The film is full of powerful performances, and the ensemble rewardingly received a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture from this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Kevin Costner brings a strong rendering to another supporting role, following a ‘rebirth’ of sorts with “Black or White,” through his depiction of Al Harrison – the hardnosed director of NASA’s Space Task Group.  He is charged with getting the first American astronaut(s) into space, following the successful launch of the Soviet Union’s first Sputnik satellite.

Octavia Spencer garners her own Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughn – a tired, but dedicated supervisor for the segregated West Area Computing Unit, who proactively adapts and prepares to overcome the impending layoffs that come as a by-product of technological advancement and the implementation of electronic computers to become the head of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.

Additional performances from Taraji P. Henson, who plays the lead role as Katherine G. Johnson, offers powerful insight into the life of a single mother who is consumed by her work and a dedication to prove herself to her peers as more than just a “computer.” Shortly after using a bit of Calculus and hand math to calculate Alan Shepard’s trajectory as he becomes the first American to enter space, she becomes the necessary addition to a team of men who are tasked with ensuring the calculations behind Glenn’s successful orbital flight – for which she must crunch the same numbers, through the same equations that had been programmed into the newly-installed IBM calculating machines, by hand at the last minute in order to guarantee the success of the mission — proving wrong the inaccurate calculations provided by the newly-implemented electronic machines during the pre-flight check.

Jim Parsons takes on the role of Paul Stafford, head engineer for NASA’s Space Task Group. Compared to Parson’s dry performance, Janelle Monáe shines in her first big-screen acting role as Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer. Lastly, Mahershala Ali brings a sense of truthfulness and relatability to the film as he portrays Col. Jim Johnson, who questions whether women can do the type of work required in an industry that has been historically dominated by men. Though he received a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his role in “Moonlight” this year, Ali rounds out a stellar cast that makes the best of fantastic writing, which undoubtedly contributed to a “Hidden Figures” Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

“Hidden Figures” has received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, partially because it breathes life into a story that needed to be told of the forgotten women who helped win the Space Race. That’s why “Hidden Figures” is so important – it’s about showing perseverance when the cards are stacked against you. It’s a film depicting the real struggle and fight of these three women in a way that keeps the audience committed to an up-beat, positive narrative that brings nothing but motivation and hope to what a person can achieve when one combines passion, commitment and a little bit of hope. No matter your personal conflict, your hiccups or the obstacles in your path – against all odds and adversaries, the illumination of what’s right and fair will always shine bright in the darkness.

I give “Hidden Figures” 4.5 stars.

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