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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Hidden Figures is based on the inspiring true story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1950s and '60s as "human computers" -- making calculations and contributions that helped launch the manned spaceflight program. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) were engineers and computers at NASA at a time when both women and African Americans were still widely discriminated against, particularly in segregationist Virginia. where NASA's Langley Research Center is based. There's a little bit of romance (a few kisses, flirty comments, and slow dancing) and a bit of salty language (mostly along the lines of "damn," "hell," and "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation). The film also offers a realistic look at the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era (segregated bathrooms, libraries, schools, facilities), and audiences will learn a lot about these pioneering women and what they had to overcome to make their mark at NASA. They're excellent role models, and their story is full of positive messages and themes, including integrity, perseverance, teamwork, and communication.
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What's the story?
Based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and '60s. They served as "human computers," doing complex mathematics and engineering tasks to help launch the manned spaceflight program -- particularly, sending astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are all brilliant women who've landed jobs as computers at NASA's Langley Research Center (in the segregated West Area Computers division). When Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, needs someone who can do theoretical math to help NASA with calculations that would outperform the Russians in the Space Race, Katherine is assigned to his team. Meanwhile, Dorothy struggles to be named supervisor of her group, and Mary goes to court so she can go to graduate school for engineering.
Is it any good?
Henson, Spencer, and Monáe's stellar performances propel this feel-good biographical drama that teaches audiences about a little-known aspect of NASA's history. Many Civil Rights-era stories are understandably upsetting, showing the unflinchingly ugly institutional racism that African Americans had to endure. But Hidden Figures remains a crowd-pleaser because the main characters, while faced with insidious day-to-day discrimination (segregated bathrooms, offices, libraries, schools), don't endure the kind of horrific violence depicted in Selma. The three stars are all fantastic, with Henson clearly enjoying playing genius, widowed mother Katherine. Spencer is, as usual, spot on as the focused Dorothy, who's determined to make sure her group doesn't lose their jobs once the "real" computers arrive. And Monae impresses with another memorable supporting turn (she also shines in Moonlight). The movie's minor antagonists include Kirsten Dunst as Mrs. Michael, the head of all the human computers, who acts condescendingly toward Dorothy and her team, and Jim Parsons as task force supervisor Paul Stafford, who's unhappy that his boss wants all his figures checked by a black woman.
The friendship between the three leads is the heart of the story, but the action favors Katherine, who's working directly with the team that launches Glenn into orbit. Her extraordinary abilities as a mathematician earn her Al Harrison's trust, top-secret clearance, and a chance to be there when key decisions are made. Audiences may wonder what was fictionalized for the adaptation and whether Glenn was really as open-minded, gracious, and flirtatious as he's portrayed in the movie. Regardless of which details might be the result of a little creative license, the pre-credits tribute picturing the real Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson make it clear that Hidden Figures is a story that needed to be told -- and it's told in a triumphant manner.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the true story behind Hidden Figures. How accurate do you think the movie is? Why might filmmakers sometimes choose to alter the facts in movies based on real life? How could you find out more about the women and people of color who worked for NASA in its early years?
How do the lessons from the Civil Rights movement apply today? How far have we come? How are people still discriminated against?
- In theaters: December 25, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: April 11, 2017
- Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
- Director: Theodore Melfi
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: STEM, Great Girl Role Models, History, Science and Nature
- Character strengths: Communication, Integrity, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 126 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements and some language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 19, 2021
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