To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, and for three BFF’s who worked at NASA’s prestigious space program, it was a double-edged sword. Virginia in 1961 was still heavily segregated, and that meant separate coffee pots, bathrooms, and buildings “for colored people”. But for Kathryn (Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) it meant job security, even though they were met with down-turned eyes and whispers.
Kathryn is a mathematics genius who is given a Golden Ticket to the Space Task Group, NASA’s prime area for calculating and crunching numbers for space flight, run by no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). But you can quickly ascertain that, she’s ‘just a women’, as the #1 math honcho in the room, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, moonlighting from TV’s Big Bang Theory), clearly doesn’t like her… mostly because she’s so damn good!
Meanwhile, Dorothy tries to get a little respect from her bigoted boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), not to mention a much passed-over promotion she deserves and Mary, a brilliant engineer, is denied a promotion as well because of her race. While all this is going on, the Russkies have one-upped us in the space race and so it’s GO time. The Mercury 7 (see The Right Stuff movie) is pressured into flight and something called an ‘IBM computer’ is brought in to help calculate the figures faster. Dorothy sees an opportunity and learns to program the ponderous contraption as Mary attempts to go to night school to get her credentials.
As the flight deadline approaches, Kathryn outshines the others with her thinking-outside-the-math skills and speaking out against her treatment there (the best scene in the movie), prompting Al to force NASA to ban the ‘white/colored’ sections. “We’re all ONE color, now!” Right after getting married to the man o’ her dreams (a dashing Mahershala Ali), Kathryn helps with astronaut John Glenn’s (a charming Glenn Powell) historic – and troubled – first manned orbit around the Earth with her last-second mathematical calculations that even the computer didn’t catch. Ha! Take THAT, Microsoft! If you caught the recent episode of TV’s Timeless, this computer malfunction scenario was played out, only with a sinister villain on the loose.
Anyway, the three women went on to be real-life heroes of NASA, each excelling in their respected fields of computers, engineering, and mathematics, making them not only the first persons of color to race to the top of NASA’s higher echelon, but also the first women as well! Yes, it’s a feel-good movie all around, smattered with the all-too nauseating racist reality of what happened in the 60’s. Based on her non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, screenwriters Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi have carefully constructed not only a timely tale of NASA’s obsession with getting a man in space, but also the balancing act of showing the private lives of the woman; not an easy thing to do.
Director Melfi (only his second feature film) takes it old-school and lets the actors have center stage, not cluttering up the film with fancy camera angles or surprise edits. It’s like this was shot in the 60’s, giving it a nice nostalgic flair with solid acting from each of the actors. Spencer is simply gold (as she always is), with Monae showing not only her beauty, but a quick wit and mind. Henson is the one who works her tail off here though, giving a powerfully restrained performance, all the more breath-taking when she decides to let loose with her anger or opinion. I can see several Oscar statutes being given out for this movie; I’m calling it right now.
Based on the true story of feisty textile factory worker Crystal Lee Sutton, Sally Field won her first Oscar for her portrayal of fictionalized Norma Rae, an equally feisty factory worker mill who does the unthinkable: she starts a union!
Field is Norma Rae Webster, a minimum-wage worker in a cotton weaving mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family. Her own mom has even lost her hearing over the terrible working conditions, but hey, what can she do about it? There’s no union to complain to, and her uncaring boss could care less. After hearing a speech by New York union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), Norma Rae decides to join the effort to unionize her shop. But this does not set well back at home with her husband, Sonny (Beau Bridges). He’s gone all selfish and says she’s not spending enough time back at home with her kids.
Norma Rae doesn’t care, despite being pressured by management, she continues to fight for better work conditions; she writes down violations at work, makes phone calls to get others involved, and even gets yelled at for being late. But after a co-worker dies of “brown lung” because of the horrid conditions, she’s had enough and, in the movies signature scene, Norma Rae takes a piece of cardboard, writes the word “UNION” on it, stands up on her work table, and slowly turns around so that everyone in the factory can see it. One by one, the other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent in solidarity. After all the machines have been switched off, Norma Rae is taken to jail, but is later freed by Reuben.
She then decides to talk to her children and tell them the story of her life. After discussing it with Reuben, Sonny tells Norma there’s no other woman in his life and he will always remain with her. Norma Rae then successfully orchestrates an election to unionize the factory, resulting in not only a victory for the union, but for factory workers everywhere. Finally, Reuben says goodbye to Norma; despite his being smitten with her throughout the movie, they only shake hands because he knows she is married and loves her husband, and Reuben heads back to New York.
A terrific screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch (it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay), this movie showed the power of one woman and her fierce determination against all odds to stand up for what was right. Director Martin Ritt captured the spirit of the times and gave the movie a beautiful look. Field, leaving her cutsie TV personas of The Flying Nun and Gidget long behind in the dust, proved she could give a powerful dramatic turn.