MOVIE BUFF-ET: Hidden Figures adds up to an inspirational, entertaining movie-going experience

20th Century Fox

Hollywood might not be the most exacting of history teachers, but then again, entertainment is its business not scholarship.

Sometimes, though, a movie not only gets the history right enough, but it also opens the public’s eyes to an important story, and it tells it in such an inspirational way that the film’s impact supersedes mere historical veracity. That might just be the case with Hidden Figures.

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I’m not familiar enough with the lives of mathematicians of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson to judge the historicity of the new film Hidden Figures. However I do know a good movie when I see one.

Director/screen writer Theodore Melfi along with co-writer Allison Schroeder deliver not only an entertaining movie with Hidden Figures but also an uplifting and inspiring one that should be seen by as many as possible, particularly elementary-age children.

I am among the mathematically challenged, but Melfi’s film that is based on the Margot Lee Shetterly ‘s nonfiction book of the same name made heroes of the three female, African American mathematicians who used their intelligence, ingenuity, and work ethic to make the most of a very slim crack in the doorway of opportunity. With their foot lodged in that crack, they broke down metaphorical walls and ceilings and crushed stereotypes to very literally help NASA put men on the moon and win the Space Race.

Shetterly’s book and Melfi’s film in turn is brilliantly titled with Hidden Figures referencing both the trio of mathematicians and an ancient mathematical formula Johnson uses to calculate the go/no go point in the flight trajectory of John Glenn’s space capsule as part of Project Mercury.

The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, but Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Johnson is elegant yet strong as a mathematical genius who cleared barriers of racism and sexism to become a key player at NASA from the Space Race through the emergence of the Space Shuttle program. Octavia Spencer as Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Jackson are equally as good in supporting roles. The chemistry between the three buzzes, and their on-screen friendship is so affirming, supportive and encouraging.

Kevin Costner is also good as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group. He’s a man too consumed with his task of getting NASA astronauts safely in and out of orbit to have time for the foolishness of racism and sexism. He won’t let either stand in the way of accomplishing that mission as Henson’s character rises in the workplace.

Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst are so good at being bad in their roles. Unlike Costner’s Harrison, their characters hold on to their pettiness and fear until they can’t help but recognize and appreciate the efforts, ingenuity, and brilliance of Henson and Spencer’s characters.

In a time that is so divisive, Hidden Figures is a joy of a film, celebrating the virtues of inclusiveness and uniting together to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem for the betterment of society as a whole. That is the type of spirit we need to champion today, and Hidden Figures does just that.

(PG) 2 hr. 6 min.
Grade: A

Classic Corner

Sullivan’s Travels

Preston Sturges meant for Sullivan’s Travels to be a bit of a spoof on the work of fellow writer/director Frank Capra. Sturges found Capra’s moralistic dramedies both cornpone and pretentious, so in 1941 he opted to poke a little fun at Capra with a comedic drama of his own called Sullivan’s Travels.

Sturges sends up Capra’s style so will with the film featuring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in one of her first starring roles that if I didn’t know better I likely would mistake the film for a Capra movie. Mind you, that’s not a criticism in my book. I love Capra-corn, but it’s hard to beat Sturges, either. And Sullivan’s Travels is one of the finest comedies of the period.

Fans of the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou would likely get a great kick out of the movie, which no doubt influenced their wild hobo comedy that features one of George Clooney’s signature performances.

McCrea plays Hollywood director John L. Sullivan who is tired of cranking out moneymaking comedies and longs to make films that are socially relevant. To prepare himself for the job, he has the idea of abandoning his privileged lifestyle to ride the rails as a hobo. His producers and handlers think it’s a terrible idea, but Sullivan’s not to be detoured.

During his travels, he meets Turner, known only as “the girl” in the movie. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress, who plans to leave Hollywood and head back home. Of course, circumstances land both of them into more trouble than either one had anticipated.

The film is a treat, and McCrea and Turner have fine on-film chemistry that’s a pleasure to watch. However, Turner was a notoriously tough co-star. McCrea opted out of starring in 1942’s I Married a Witch when he learned Turner would play the witch. Fredric March stepped in to star opposite, but after completing the movie, he vowed never to act opposite the beautiful but petulant star.