Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Hidden Figures, from 20th Century Fox, may be the perfect film for our times. Nothing proved it more than a theatrical screening of the Academy Awards Best Picture nominee at the Aero Theatre on February 8th, with cast member Octavia Spencer (also an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress) in person along with co-writer/director Theodore Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder (also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay). The crowd went wild with applause throughout the film, when the three early 1960s NASA human “computers” stood up for themselves in the face of oppression - both as women and as African Americans - in the course of their daily lives.

Photo by Margot Gerber

Hidden Figures, based on the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the virtually unknown story of the “Colored Computers,” the group of mathematicians who helped put astronauts into space in the segregated state of Virginia. This division of African American women with high level math skills handled NASA’s computations as the U.S. competed in the Space Race. It follows the professional ascension of three women who won’t allow their gender or race to interfere with their dreams. Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is assigned to the all-white male group working on putting John Glenn into orbit; Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer, is a natural leader who takes the initiative to learn and teach programming on NASA's new IBM mainframe; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle MonĂ¡e, petitions the court to take the courses necessary at an all-white school in order to become the first Black female engineer at NASA.

The audience was intrigued by which incidents in the film really happened and which were dramatic invention. Melfi and Schroeder revealed that they invented an incident whereby the women get a police escort after an officer finds them stranded by the side of the road.“It’s a movie,” Melfi replied with mock sheepishness as each incident was discussed. While Kevin Costner’s character whacks the “Colored” women’s restroom sign down with a sledge hammer in the film, Melfi says that in real life, the desegregation of NASA’s restrooms was accomplished in a memo. What was real? Melfi said that based on accounts from the time, the company had a fairly progressive attitude about civil rights issues.

Spencer expressed her joy that this movie allows “little girls to dream differently.” She went on to say, “they don’t just have to think in terms of becoming sports stars or actors or rappers or models.”

Photo by Margot Gerber
Melfi mentioned that they went to the White House, to which Spencer quickly added, “a few months ago,” to show Hidden Figures with a group of girls. Melfi recalled how wonderful it was to see it with youngsters who could be inspired by these African American female role models and to have Michelle Obama introduce the film.