First Hit: A very touching and wonderful film about strong smart women overcoming prejudicial perceptions about their capabilities.
This film is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, which tells the story of how smart intelligent black women persevered and overcame the challenges of 1960’s discrimination in Virginia to help the United States come from behind and beat the Russians in the space race. This movie chronicles their journey along with the journey of the early space program.
Having grown up in this era, but in Southern California where the overt and obvious signs of segregation didn’t exist, I was shocked knowing that Virginia had segregated lunch rooms, bathrooms, and bus seating. This issue drives this film’s story.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are three friends who work for NASA in Langley Virginia. The Russians have successfully launched manned orbital space flight with Yuri Gagarin. Because we were in a cold war with the Russians, it was a societal imperative of the time, that we beat them in the space race.
Under the guidance Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) NASA was struggling to develop rockets, space capsules, and the ability to calculate orbital exit and entry points of these space vehicles. To assist with the more mundane calculations, NASA used a unit called “Colored Calculators” of which Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were a part.
There are three major stories about these women in this film, plus other side stories. This is both the strength and weakness of this film. We didn’t need every story, however the main story about the three finding their rightful paths was divine. Katherine was a mathematical genius graduating high school at age 14 and college at age 18. She is a single mother raising three daughters, while working long hours calculating numbers. When she is discovered as the only one who knows analytical geometry, she gets assigned to Harrison’s group to figure out how the United States will launch a man into orbit and bring him back alive. This is the main theme of the film.
It also documents how Mary had to find a way to become a certified engineer with NASA. As she assisted Research Engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki he asks her why she didn’t become a certified engineer, she tells him, “I wouldn’t have too. I would already be one.”. Dorothy, managed the Colored Calculators but they refused to give her the title of Supervisor because she was black. When NASA attempted to install a IBM computer, she learned Fortran and ended up Supervisor of the computer programmers. However, when there were calculation discrepancies by the IBM computer and the orbital launch was in jeopardy, John Glenn (Glen Powell) says; “Get the girl (Johnson) to check the numbers… if she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go.”
The mixture of using old original film footage tying together the major events of the day with events in the film was very well done. Emotionally and at a feeling level, this film is very well done. From the moment Katherine’s daughters talk about diving underneath their desks at school to protect themselves from bomb fallout to the hurdles of racism that were being jumped over; tears of joy and sorrow fell down my cheeks.
Henson was amazingly wonderful as a brilliant mathematician and woman who finds her way into a very elite world. Spencer was very good as a woman that wouldn’t let herself be slighted any longer and took matter into her own hands and learned computer programming. Monae was fantastic as the sassy woman who outwardly challenged the status quo. One of the best scenes in film is when she went before the Judge to make her case for getting into an all-white school. Costner was good as the head of the space program and one of my favorite scenes with him was when he ripped the “Colored Only Women’s Room” signs off the wall. Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson, Johnson’s beau, was very good. His strength and sensitivity were perfect. Kirsten Dunst, as Johnson’s boss, was strong. She had an appropriate level of aloofness. Powell as Glenn was excellent. His open welcoming personality made everyone’s life better. Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford the lead analyst heading up the development team was very good. Allison Schroder and Theodore Melfi wrote a very good screenplay but it had more side stories than needed. Melfi did a wonderful job of directing this cast, however it felt more complicated and longer than it needed to be.
Overall: This film documents a changing and glorious time in our country and these women led the way.