Film Review: Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are irresistible (and unstoppable) in this engaging story of pioneering black female mathematicians at NASA.
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Many a film claims to portray “an untold story,” and that’s never been truer than in the case of the aptly titled Hidden Figures. This eye-opening drama brings to the screen the “Who knew?” account of three African-American female mathematicians who were key to the success of NASA’s Mercury space flights in the early 1960s. Though sometimes broad and unsubtle in its approach, it provides an invaluable and uplifting history lesson and irresistible feel-good entertainment, abetted by its engaging star trio, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer Janelle Monáe.

We’re first introduced to those three women, Katherine Goble (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe), when their car breaks down en route to their jobs at the Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton, Virginia. A white police officer stops to investigate, and the air is rife with tension until they manage to persuade him they’re an essential part of the Space Race and are given a high-speed escort to the lab. Katherine is a math whiz who works as a pre-IBM human computer (her actual job title) doing calculations and is soon promoted to the Space Task Group working on the first manned space flight. Dorothy supervises the segregated room of black women computers, but is continually denied the formal title (and salary) of supervisor. Mary has been chosen for the team working on the Mercury capsule prototype; her boss encourages her to study engineering, but the college courses she needs for NASA certification are held at a segregated white high school.

The script by director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, alternates between the three friends’ struggles, and like the current Loving (about the suppression of groundbreaking interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving), Hidden Figures startles with its portrait of the casually accepted and pervasive racism of a mere five decades ago (not that racism doesn’t persist, of course). But because these women are so spirited, Hidden Figures takes a jauntier approach to the topic that makes their ultimate triumph seem inevitable. That’s a bit of a miscalculation in the scenes where Katherine has to run in her high heels to a non-whites-only bathroom a long distance from her desk at the Space Task Group; accompanied by a Pharrell Williams tune, these humiliating moments play out like comedy. Which is remedied somewhat when Katherine has finally had enough and lashes out at her white co-workers over her second-class status.

Meanwhile, Dorothy, continually condescended to by her haughty white boss (Kirsten Dunst), sees the future clearly: Her platoon of human computers will be replaced by IBM’s new machines unless they master programming language. And Mary must go to court to defeat the Catch-22 that prevents her from pursuing an engineering degree. All three of these groundbreaking women lived into the 2000s, and Katherine (now Johnson) is still around at age 98 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

Supporting the three leads is a very solid cast, most prominently Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the gruff, driven head of the Space Task Group (a fictional composite character) who comes to appreciate Katherine’s exceptional talents. Mahershala Ali, who’s been winning awards left and right for his nuanced drug-dealer role in Moonlight, is thoroughly disarming as the military veteran who woos and weds the reticent Katherine. And Glen Powell (“Scream Queens,” Everybody Wants Some!!) pours on the charisma in his brief appearances as the recently departed astronaut pioneer John Glenn.

Henson, bespectacled and prim and a far cry from her rambunctious Cookie on the TV hit “Empire,” is tremendously likeable here, while Oscar winner Spencer is an empathy magnet as the extremely competent and underappreciated Dorothy. And Monáe, also turning heads in Moonlight, solidifies her new status as an actress to watch.

Hidden Figures may occasionally play to the rafters, but it brings an unjustly obscure story of smart, unstoppable women out of the shadows and deserves a wide audience, black and white, young and old.

Click here for cast and crew information.