9 Things Parents Should Know About ‘Hidden Figures’

The historical drama Hidden Figures opened this weekend. Read on to find out what you should know before taking the kids.

1. What is it about?

Hidden Figures tells the story of the role a group of African-American women played in the early days of America’s space race. The movie focuses on three of these women: Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. All three are shown in the film early in what would become truly spectacular careers, but at this point they had to fight for every ounce of respect they could muster.

2. Will I like it?

If you’re interested in the history of the space program, or the history of civil rights, or in well-written, well-acted dramas, then yes, you’ll definitely like it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it did make we want to come home and rewatch The Right Stuff.

3. Will my kids like it?

This one is a bit tougher. Let me start by saying that my 11 year old son picked seeing this over seeing A Monster Calls, and he very much enjoyed it. There’s nothing in particular in the movie that I think might upset kids (see the discussion of the movie’s rating below for more on that), but it might be a bit slow for some younger kids to sit through. It is definitely a movie worth seeing by anyone who wants to have a discussion about race relations, though.

4. What is it rated? Why?

The movie is rated PG for “thematic elements and some language”.

Sometimes, the “why” part of this is easy, but for this one I’m not entirely certain. There wasn’t anything that jumped out at me in the movie. The language, according to my son, was one or two utterances of “hell”. One of the women describes herself as a “Negro”. But other than that, there’s no language.

For the thematic elements, I can only guess that the MPAA was referring to the many, many scenes where white characters treat the women disrespectfully. And of course there’s a lot of that. There’s no specific physical violence, but there is a scene where Janelle Monáe’s character’s family is watching a TV news program about the bombing of a bus, but it was a 1961 news program so there’s no graphic description of anything in it.

The scenes when John Glenn’s capsule is in trouble re-entering the atmosphere might be scary to some kids who didn’t hear that Glenn died last month, and not 55 years ago.

5. Is it historically accurate? 

A little personal story here. When I was 6 years old, I decided I wanted to be astronaut. But I wasn’t like other kids who sort of gave that as an answer to grown ups but also thought that maybe they’d grow up to be the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos as well. I was quite serious about it. I read all I could on the space program. I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Twice. (The second time, I got to meet Walter Schirra, one of the original seven astronauts.) And in all that time and all that reading, I never once heard of any of these women. I never once read even a hint that women, and African-American women in particular, were so instrumental in the space program. (The end of this story was that I took physics in high school and realized that I didn’t really want to be a scientist after all.)

That isn’t to say that the story is fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to what I can find online, the movie is considerably more accurate than most historical dramas. It takes what was an inherently interesting story and lets the facts tell the story, something that is tragically rare in Hollywood. Rather, my anecdote above is about why this movie is important, and why it so desperately needed to be told. I’m very glad to have this major hole in my own understanding of the space race filled in, and I’m glad that it was done in a movie that is so good that it will hopefully be widely seen.

6. Who else stars in the movie?

The head of the group responsible for doing the calculations for NASA is played by Kevin Costner. His right-hand man is played by Jim Parsons, and the woman responsible for assigning tasks to the African-American women at NASA is played by Kirtsen Dunst. Golden Globe nominee and almost certain Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali also plays an important role in the movie.

7. How long is the movie?

The movie is 2 hours, 7 minutes long, but the last 8 or 9 of those minutes are credits.

8. When’s a good time to sneak out for a bathroom break?

This is a tough one. There are a few montage scenes about mid-way through the movie, but they’re all followed by pretty important scenes. The best I can offer is roughly halfway (I think) when the three women are at the home of Octavia Spencer’s character. They talk about the injustices they are encountering and end up drinking. I’m not sure how long it is, though, so again: hurry.

9. Is there anything after the credits?

No. Like many movies of this kind, there are some shots of the actual women, both in 1961 and later. (Johnson is still alive at age 97.) But once the actual credits start, that’s it.

Rob is a geek with a 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. He teaches web and graphic design at the college level, watches a ridiculous number of movies, plays as many board games as he can, and loves the history of the technological age almost as much as he loves Firefly.