Sometimes looking in the rear view mirror can help us see what to keep in mind as we try to move forward.

The new film Hidden Figures takes us back to 1961, a time when social norms define roles and history dictates potential. At work, men wear white shirts with narrow ties as they rely on female subordinates to serve coffee and stay quiet. At home, women defer to what men demand while, in every hallway, those born with darker shades of skin must live within restrictions that closed minds dictate.

Still, as the film opens, times are changing. The race to space fills conversations across the country as NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, prepares to send its first astronauts into orbit. This ambition requires mathematical masterminds to calculate what it will take for someone to safely travel into space and come back. And, because computers are yet to play the role they will later play, NASA relies on people to make the needed calculations, including a group of black women who work long days in a room without windows deep in the basement at the Langley Research Center.

Based on true events, Hidden Figures takes us into this hidden world where three of these women demonstrate ambition beyond their surroundings. Nothing is going to stop them, not the color of their skin, not the roots of their traditions. The movie tracks the ingenious steps they take to ensure they get to contribute. For one, this means learning what it takes to program a mainframe computer and, for another, what it will take to become an engineer and, for a third, what difference she can make when her coworkers discover the value of her calculations. As NASA looks for answers from every source, the efforts to engage this group of women stuns the organization, its leaders and the ladies themselves. Hidden Figures reminds us what people can accomplish when they recognize what binds rather than separates, what connects instead of divides, and, when people work together, what they can accomplish.

Just as the female characters in the story power the progress, the performances in the film energize the narrative. Taraji P. Henson brings a gutsy humanity to her multi-layered portrayal of a woman who trusts the integrity of the knowledge she shares while Octavia Spencer brings her personality and humor to a shaded performance as a woman with a passion to learn what may be outside her immediate reach. They are well supported by Kevin Costner in a solid turn as a man who wants to do what’s right even if it promotes what’s different.

Hidden Figures recreates a time when some people ride in the backs of buses, plead to take courses at all-white schools, or fear what may happen if they are stopped by police who do not tolerate multiple colors. Yes, we have changed in our country, but how much have we actually progressed? And how must progress must we make to truly overlook our differences? Seeing today’s challenges through a lens of the past can reveal the steps still to take. Hidden Figures offers a clear view.

Hidden Figures

  • Content: High. This is a beautifully created and performed film about an important but little known chapter in American history.
  • Entertainment: High. Despite the seriousness of the issues, the film is filled with colorful characters who radiate natural humor.
  • Message: High. This meaningful film offers insight into the prejudice of a time that, even though more than 50 years ago, still happens before our eyes.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce children to essential issues of condition, ambition and curiosity should prompt thoughtful conversation.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your children about the potential that comes from welcoming those we may consider different.

(Hidden Figures is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements and some language” and runs 2 hours, 7 minutes. The Reel Dad’s Rating: 4.5 Popcorn Buckets.)

How movies embrace the 1960s: The Help

By Mark Schumann, Father of Three

As we savor the lessons of Hidden Figures, another classic film reminds us how much we can learn at the movies about the challenges that people faced in the 1960s.

The Help recreates a time when the realities of the day dictated, in many places in the United States, how people of different races must serve others in an American dream that becomes more of a sentence than an opportunity. This film takes us inside the lives of women who only know one way to feed their families. All the society will enable them to do is to serve others without offering equal access to ordinary facilities and services. But they don’t give up. Holding them together is a belief that strong people can endure; their strength reminds us that quite resolve may be difficult to overcome.

The early 1960s were years of bitter hatred between races as the nation approached the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Help reaches beyond its beautifully recreated 1960s aesthetic to boldly examine issues that defined racial tension some 50 years ago. While the movie does not try to be a definitive examination of the oppressed in the Old South, it reveals the inexcusable behavior that the Civil Rights legislation intended to change. But Southern homes are filled with carpets for many reasons, one of which is to have a convenient place to sweep issues that are uncomfortable to address.

In The Help we meet Skeeter, a young white woman with intelligence and fairness that reach beyond her synthetic background. When she returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi (after failing her college assignment to land a husband) she stumbles on an idea for a book to, hopefully, impress an editor at a New York publishing house. Because she credits the care she received during her childhood from her family’s black maid – and resists repeating the pattern of treating black help as modern-day servants – she decides to tell the stories of how black maids serve white employers. What emerges, surprisingly, is a thoughtful catharsis for a community.

Such a framework gives writer/director Tate Taylor the foundation to ramble from character to character in a casual approach that works because Taylor is clever enough to surprise at many turns. The white women, despite their perfection in looks, are as human as the young mothers of any generation; the black women, despite their complex lives, consistently bring a humanity and humor to each chance to touch their friends and employers.

Sadly, we continue to experience unfair bias against people who dress and pray differently than many. The Help reminds us that people, not laws, determine fairness and opportunity. And when people are frightened, they look for any way, no matter how unfair, to protect themselves. This film reminds us, again, that one person’s protection may be another’s prison.