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Hidden Figures (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 128 minutes.

OK for children.

This is an interesting, heart-warming film that is marred by a runtime at least 30 minutes too long and at least one counterfactual scene. This is a tale that couldnít possibly justify a runtime in excess of 90 minutes. Tell it and fade out. Instead it drags on and on and on to the spot where the point is almost lost.

This little-known story of three black women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle MonŠe), was revealed in a novel by Margo Lee Slatterly, a graduate of the University of Virginiaís McIntire school of Commerce. According to an article by Denise Watson in Virginia Magazine, Slatterly

got the idea for her book when she and her husband were visiting her parents in Hampton in 2010. Her father, Robert Lee III, mentioned that her former Sunday school teacher had been a human computer at NASA.

He rattled off the names of other women, African-American and white, who, beginning in the 1930s, used their acute math skills, slide rules and adding machines to do what no one had done before. Hundreds of women worked as computers, but the Jim Crow culture kept the black women segregated into their own West Area Computing group, housing and bathrooms. The women still progressed.

Her father had joined NASA in 1966 as a co-op college student from Norfolk State University and worked with several of these women over the years. He retired from NASA in 2004 as a climate scientist who had lectured around the world. He was in the midst of pioneers but didnít see it as historic.

ďThere were so many African Americans around me, and I just thought of it as we were doing our jobs,Ē Lee says. ďA lot of times we didnít know what the other person was doing. There were so many things going on.Ē

It took Slatterly three years of research and interviews to put the book together as a result is a fascinating tale of these unsung black women who played a key role in Americaís conquest of space and, especially, John Glennís first historic flight of an American circling the globe.

Johnson was a brilliant mathematician and as you will see in the film was one of the most important people with respect to Glennís successful flight. Vaughan was also brilliant, but also a leader whose supervisorial talents were held back because of her race. Jackson was equally brilliant and thought for an education that was not easily available to a black person in those years. She eventually became NASAís first black female aerospace engineer and is thought to be the first black female engineer in the United States.

The one false note that I saw immediately was a scene in which Americans are huddled around television sets to watch Yuri Gagarinís flight from Russia when he became the first human to circle the globe. These scenes are totally false because the Russians never announced anything until after the flights were completed because they feared that a disaster would bring international disdain. What was unique about Americaís space program was that it was shown live. If a rocket had exploded, everyone wouldíve seen it in real time.

But those are minor criticisms. Even though itís too long itís an interesting and intriguing tale and Slatterly, along with director Theodore Melfi, deserve a lot of plaudits for bringing their story to light.