This is what moviemaking should be about; revealing a hidden part of history, showing how great Americans (in this case, great African American women, and great patriots too) overcame tremendous odds to not only make America great during a time of great cultural upheaval, but also to take a great leap forward for civil rights here as well
This film is about three trailblazing black women who worked for NASA in Virginia, circa early 1960s: although the Supreme Court has ruled segregation to be illegal, it is still very much a fact of life in the state of Virginia, if not everywhere else in the South during this time.
It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, an elite mathematician, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn, a female mechanic, technician and manager of what can best be described as a clerical pool of black women who were employed by NASA at the time, and singer Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, an engineer (believed to be the first female engineer hired by NASA; Ms. Monáe is someone to watch on the movie scene; she was excellent in the highly acclaimed “Moonlight” also).
All three women are friends, and they carpool to work at NASA together most times, as their salaries are nowhere near what the men there are paid. Katherine Johnson, a widow with three children (all daughters), is assigned to work on math algorithms that will ensure that America can get an astronaut into space; there are no other women assigned to the project, so her addition to “the team” causes quite a stir among the men employed in this elite group of thinkers. Even after bringing Johnson into the group, the area where she is assigned to work really isn’t ready to receive her; they initially don’t even have a desk for her to perform her work. Though she is far more intelligent than the others assigned to her new work group, including her ‘manager/handler’ Paul Stafford (played well by TV star Jim Parsons), Stafford plays it safe for himself by initially assigning Johnson to the mundane task of “looking over the work” of the other mathematicians who are doing the ‘real job’ of getting an American into space. Katherine holds her head high, delighted to have been selected to such a herculean task, even though her contributions are looked down upon pretty much by everyone in her unit, except for the head of the program, Al Harrison (also well played by Kevin Costner). Stafford lets everyone know immediately that he will not be shown up by a black female, and he rubs Johnson’s nose in every indignity he can find. Basic amenities like coffee, water and a bathroom are denied Johnson in the building where she works sometimes over 12 hours a day, because as a person of color in the state of Virginia, she is not allowed to touch or use anything that would be shared by her white co-workers; of course, all of the other employees in her unit, even the one other female (a white female clerk), have completely ignored this oversight. Eventually, Al Harrison finds that Johnson’s value to the team is immeasurable, and he forces changes upon the NASA culture that makes life in that unit more hospitable for Johnson, much to the disdain of Stafford. Harrison is focused on getting the mission completed, and he has little use for status quo segregation if it should impede the nation’s progress in getting a man into space.
Dorothy Vaughn is a technician/mechanic/clerical pool manager without the title (or the pay that would go with it) at NASA. Although Vaughn is completely qualified for the open position of supervisor in her unit, her boss, Vivian Mitchell (played with a steely iciness by Kirsten Dunst) refuses to promote Vaughn officially to the position, with the pay and perks that go with it. “My bosses won’t consider you” is all Mitchell will say when Vaughn makes repeated inquiries concerning being considered to fill the position, but you know right away that it is Mitchell herself who has blocked the path for Vaughn’s rise through the ranks of NASA. Vaughn has pretty much resigned herself to the fact that Mitchell will be the proverbial boulder-in-the-road for the remainder of her career at NASA. Vaughn is not only intelligent, she is able to forecast trends in technology and adjust her skills accordingly. At one point, NASA hires IBM to bring in a supercomputer to the complex in Virginia; unfortunately, the IBM employees themselves (all white males) cannot figure out how to make the supercomputer do its desired job for NASA. Vaughn takes it upon herself to enter the computer room at night (when the men have left for the day), and immerse herself in the operator’s manual, so that she will know how to program and operate the computer. After educating herself, she goes back to her clerical pool of female employees, and schools them up on the knowledge needed to operate the supercomputer also. Vaughn knows that computers are going to be the future there, and those who lack the knowledge to program and operate them will find themselves without jobs at NASA. Vaughn is one smart cookie, and eventually, the higher ups at NASA realize this as well.
Mary Jackson is the youngest of the three women, and by far the most ambitious, as young people tend to be. She will not sit still for the Jim Crow lifestyle of Virginia, and she is determined to become an engineer for NASA, by hook or by crook. When she finds doors closed, she lowers her head and runs into them head on, determined to create her own path to success in her chosen profession, segregation be damned.
Nothing, and no one, is going to stand her way.
This is a great film, capturing the mood and nuances of being a professional woman of color in segregated Virginia at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in America. The women portrayed in this film are all real people. One can only imagine the frustrations and tears they must have shed while carving their own distinct paths at NASA during this time. There are many parallels to this movie and to economic conditions that exist for blacks in America still today. In my opinion, this is the best film I’ve seen this year, and it is immensely enjoyable, with first-rate performances from a great starring cast. I would urge everyone to see it.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder. 2 hrs. and 7 minutes.