Hidden Figures: Yes, This is Rocket Science 

Hidden Figures brings the story of three brilliant women out in the open.

Actress Janelle Monae (far right): “This story makes me so proud, as a woman, as a minority and as an American.”

20th Century Fox Films

Actress Janelle Monae (far right): “This story makes me so proud, as a woman, as a minority and as an American.”

The producers of Hidden Figures, the first must-see film of 2017, have shown some inspired restraint by waiting until after the new year to premiere their movie. A film this good requires a wide berth, and there should be some big-screen vacancies once a few bloated holiday efforts--i.e. Assassin's Creed, Passengers and Why Him?--are kicked to the curb along with the Christmas tree.

I've been anxious to sing the praises of Hidden Figures for four months, ever since it came on my radar at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey told me last fall that the festival made the unprecedented decision to showcase about 30 minutes of the work-in-progress.

"You're the first to see these scenes," Bailey told an invitation-only assemblage. "We're beyond-thrilled to give you a taste of this amazing story." Bailey said the producers of Hidden Figures had worked with TIFF to offer the still-unedited footage, rare for a festival that usually reserves its attention for completed, award-worthy contenders which this year included La La Land, Moonlight, Arrival, Loving, Lion and Jackie.

I have since screened the completed production of Hidden Figures and my admiration has only grown. Prior to its national release on Friday, Jan. 6, Hidden Figures was given a limited release for Motion Picture Academy members to consider possible Oscar nominations and, unless my radar is off-kilter, you can expect Hidden Figures to garner some well-deserved Oscar attention when nominations are revealed in a few weeks.

Hidden Figures shines a light on a little-known chapter in modern American history: the integral role of African-American women at the height of NASA's Gemini program, a precursor to landing on the moon. The film tells the story of three women relegated to the so-called "colored computer" department, segregated from NASA's all-white unit. Mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), engineer May Jackson (Janelle Monae) and division head Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) pretty much saved NASA's bacon at the height of the space race and were largely responsible for rescuing astronaut John Glenn's mission to become the first man in orbit, which, it turns out, was much more perilous than the public ever knew.

"When I watch these scenes from our movie, and this is the first time I'm seeing them too, I see heroes," said Monae after last September's sneak peek. "This story makes me so proud, as a woman, as a minority and as an American."

And there were, quite appropriately, a few tears from the stars of Hidden Figures when they got their own first look at their scenes from the film.

"But this isn't the first time I cried. I cried when I first read the script," said Monae who, in addition to her Grammy-nominated career as a singer/songwriter, co-stars in two of the season's best films: Hidden Figures and Moonlight. "I knew when they first showed me this script that I had to drop everything else I was doing with my career, so that I could focus on this film."

Another musical superstar who helped bring Hidden Figures to the big screen was Pharrell Williams, who is not only a producer of the film but also composed what will certainly be an Oscar-nominated soundtrack.

"It's super-inspiring to have worked on this," Williams said at TIFF, adding that he was still a bit nervous about the final edit of the film. "All throughout our nation's history, we keep trying to fix our problems. I honestly think that it will be African-American women who will be the ones that will end up solving many of our existing problems. I see a future where African-American women elevate and inspire new generations to find new solutions."

Spencer echoed Williams' hope for a new, more diverse inspiration for problem-solving, describing Hidden Figures as "a call to action for Moms to nurture our young girls." Already an Oscar winner for 2011's The Help, Spencer said she was stunned that she had never heard the story of NASA's "colored computer" women prior to her involvement with Hidden Figures.

"When I got the script, I thought, 'Wow, Hollywood actually came up with an original story here.' But at the time, I thought the story was fiction," said Spencer. "It's a true story, a story to foster inquisitive minds, to nurture young girls."

Henson, already scorching the small screen as Cookie in the wildly successful Fox TV series Empire, said her participation in Hidden Figures was "important to me as a girl from the hood."

"I didn't grow up with much. So, when I was a girl, all I had were my dreams," said Henson. "But if I had known about this story and about these women, who knows? Maybe I could have aspired to be a rocket scientist. I can't tell you how inspirational it has been to be part of a project that can give children like me hope and a chance to dream a different dream. You can really say that this is for all the women who were hidden."

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