There are films that simply know how to make an audience happy, and there are those that shamelessly manipulate a crowd into trying to feel something to the point of exhaustion. Thankfully, Hidden Figures falls into the former category with impressive results with of a superb cast and a true-life story long overdue in the telling. The story is set at the height of the space race between the United States and Russia, a race that Russia appeared to be winning. But unbeknownst to most, a team of African-American women working in the bowels of NASA acting as human calculators were critical to the program of putting the first man in orbit.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), Hidden Figures narrows its focus on three best friends who drive to work together every morning—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, also doing fantastic work in Moonlight) each had special technical and mathematical skills that were largely untapped in this work. Thankfully, NASA was so desperate and behind on the Soviets work that they were willing push past racial and gender biases in an effort to find the people that would push them ahead in the race to the stars, with Johnson being the real star of the show as she moved into the eye of the storm that determined exactly how their astronauts would re-enter the atmosphere without burning up.
The film is peppered with various examples of racism perpetrated by their co-workers, especially Johnson who had to run nearly a mile to another building to use the building’s only restroom for colored women, causing her to disappear from her desk for long stretches. When her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) finds this out, he immediately desegregates all of the bathrooms at NASA—one small step for racial equality. Others at NASA aren’t as happy having black women make them look less intelligent, including another of Johnson’s co-workers (Jim Parsons), who gets particularly nasty with her, as well as the woman in charge of human resources (Kirsten Dunst), who never feels any of the black women would work well in the rest of the organization. But their inherent smarts and desire to move up in NASA seem to win every time over such short sightedness.
While Johnson continually finds ways to impress those around her with her work, Vaughan secretly learns how to use the new IBM machines being brought into NASA that will eventually make her team obsolete. She then teaches her group how to code these daunting machines, and when IBM is finally ready to integrate the machines into NASA calculation processes, Vaughan and her women are the only ones who know how to use the equipment. All the while, Jackson is breaking a few barriers of her own to get a degree and become an engineer at NASA with the help of the local court system.
The importance of their place in NASA was never more clear than when John Glenn (Glen Powell), the man who would pilot the first orbit of earth, put a great deal of faith in Johnson before taking off and made sure she was as important to his mission as anyone else. I first saw Hidden Figures just a couple of weeks before Glenn’s recent passing, and the film’s depiction of him as a truly good, talented and kind man is a fitting and lovely tribute.
All three of the leads, as well as Costner (who has played this type of role before quite effectively in films like JFK and Thirteen Days) are quite good here, but it’s Henson that walks away with Hidden Figures. She’s a genuine math nerd—quiet and shy about everything except how good she is at calculating. We sometimes see her at home with her husband (Mahershala Ali, also from Moonlight), who is a bit miffed at how buried his wife is in her work but understands that what she’s accomplishing is important. The pressures on Katherine are almost impossible to imagine, both at home (she also had three children) and at work, but Henson captures her tireless spirit, intelligence and desire to both stand out and not stick out. More than anything, all the women in the group bring a sense of pride to their work that many of their career-driven counterparts simply don’t possess to the same degree.
Hidden Figures may feel somewhat watered down at times, to the point where it begins to resemble a Civil Rights 101 lesson, but it’s an easy flaw to overlook because the movie doesn’t skimp on the math and technical jargon, which is impenetrable at times, but we still get a sense of what is being discussed and who among the team is doing it right. Adapted by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film takes its audience into the corridors where geniuses dare to walk, and where ultimately, the quality of the work is what matters most. This is an inspirational tale that should have been told decades ago, but it’s encouraging that it’s being told at all.