Did you know that three female African-American mathematicians, working at NASA in 1962, were instrumental in getting the Mercury program into orbit and winning the U.S. space race against the Soviets? Me neither. That’s why Hidden Figures is such an instructive and wildly entertaining eye-opener. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the filmmaking – director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) mostly sticks to the record in the script he wrote with Allison Schroeder from the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. But it’s the smart move. This is a story that doesn’t need frills. It simply needs telling, and the fact it gets three dynamite actresses to tell it does poetic justice to both these women and the Civil Rights movement at large.
Taraji P. Henson excels as Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy who extraordinary talent brought her to the NASA facility in Langley, Virginia in 1961. Now 98, Ms. Johnson has lived to see a research facility named after her. Things were far from that open-minded, however, when she and her colleagues, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, killer good), hit segregated Virginia to work on the space program. Known as “colored computers” – the latter word being the organization’s term for employees who did low-level calculations – these women soon made their mark against daunting odds. In an early scene, the car-pooling trio are pulled over by a white cop who finds it hard to belief that they work at NASA or even that Dorothy is capable of fixing a Chevy Impala herself.
Katherine is first to be promoted to a job with the Space Task Group, where manager Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, getting everything right) sees her talent – even if he clearly favors her peer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, nailing the casual racism of the period). Still, it’s Harrison who takes action when he realizes she has to walk half a mile to get to a “Colored Ladies Room.” “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he says, tearing down the restroom-segregation sign in a scene that lets Costner spit out the words with spirited authority.
Mary has to go to court for permission to take night courses needed merely to apply for an open job in engineering. Monáe is terrific in the role, showing here and in Moonlight that she has the right stuff to launch an acting career to match her success in music. Best of all is Spencer, an Oscar winner for The Help, who is funny, fierce and quietly devastating at showing the punishing increments it takes for Dorothy to inch up the NASA ladder. Her white supervisor, Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), refuses to give her a supervisor title even though she’s already doing the job. Spencer delivers a priceless putdown that pays gutsy respect to these boundary-breaking pioneers.
The drama finds little time for the personal lives of its protagonists, though the widowed Katherine is allowed a romance with a National Guard officer, played with humor and heart by Mahershala Ali. The emphasis here is watching these remarkable women at work. Dorothy sees the future in the new IBM machines being tested to speed up the space program, and takes appropriate action. Mary tells a judge that ordering desegregation of the all-white school she needs to study at would make him a pioneer. Katherine faces the toughest obstacles, working against the NASA rule of denying security clearances to female employees. But even astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) dubs Katherine “the smart one.” The story may be corny at times, even simplistic, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to stand up and cheer. Lots of movies are labeled as “inspirational” – Hidden Figures truly earns the right to the term.