Sunday, May 20 , 2018, 6:27 pm | A Few Clouds 67º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Hidden Figures’

4 Stars — Inspiring

Hidden Figures is a great reminder that you should never underestimate the greatness sealed within your soul. Three women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — all African-American and acutely aware of the segregation of the time — found themselves at the center of the “space race” with NASA in 1961.

At a time when America was in shock that the Soviet Union had become the first nation in the world to put a man in space, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The problem was, no one knew how to make it happen.

Unless you lived through it, it is hard to imagine how different the world was just 50 years ago. Even though the United States had dominated the end of World War II, within 15 years it was in a psychological battle with the Soviets who were threatening nuclear annihilation. The domination of space was seen as just an extension of their nuclear capabilities. Americans of any age were preparing for the potential end of the world, with schoolchildren practicing hiding in bomb shelters or under their desks as if they could survive a nuclear holocaust.

The newly formed NASA space program had 24 months to get a man into space. To get there meant turning social conventions upside down, including finding the best mathematicians in the country, who included women of color. For Langley, Va., where NASA was based, this was hard for traditional male engineers to accept. Though teammates, they would still send the “colored girls” a quarter-mile away to use the “Colored” toilets.

Johnson had been a mathematical genius since childhood and got the opportunity to step into new roles out of necessity. Vaughan was the de facto manager of the “colored girls” who worked in a separate building calculating math problems. Jackson was an engineering student who ended up breaking the color barrier at the schools in Virginia in order to get an engineering credential.

Without giving away the heart of the story, each of these women played a pivotal role in getting John Glenn into space in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn was so impressed with Johnson’s skills that on the day of his launch, he refused to give permission for liftoff until he heard the affirmative calculations from her.

The space race didn’t have racial integration as a primary or secondary objective, but “necessity being the mother of invention” led to it becoming a catalyst for change. Johnson went on to become a leading figure in the landing of a man on the moon in 1969 and in the development of the Space Shuttle. In 2015, at age 97, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at the White House. In 2017, she still lives in Virginia.


» The limitations we have placed on ourselves by saying that some humans are not fully human or capable because of gender or race is incalculable. What are you doing to bring honor and respect to every person in your life? What holds you back? Do you experience or participate in microagressions?

» It is not only personal prejudices but systemic injustices and institutionalized patriarchy and racist injustice that impact all of us in destructive ways. What are you doing to bring justice to the systemic and institutionalized patriarchy and racist realities in our nation? Have you studied this to better understand and bring about change?

» Humanity divides itself into tribal communities that then have an “us/them” vocabulary. How do we overcome tribablism?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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