It’s always nice when the first movie you see for the year is a good one. Especially when it’s a really good one.
“Hidden Figures” is the heartwarming, compelling, true story of three African-American women who played important roles in the early days of NASA and the U.S. space program.
The central figure is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius who works for NASA as a research mathematician, or “human computer,” double-checking the calculations of the white, male engineers. Her two best friends are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who runs the division where Katherine works but is denied the title, respect, and pay of being promoted to supervisor; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), another “computer.”
As the space race between the U.S. and Russia heats up, Katherine is pulled out of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center and across campus to work directly at NASA’s Space Task Group. The department is headed by the no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Chief engineer in the department is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). No one is terribly excited to see Katherine walk through the door.
Meanwhile, Mary’s mentor suggests she go back to school and get an engineering degree — something unheard of for a black woman in 1961. Even her husband has his doubts, but Mary decides to take the challenge — even if it means going to court to gain access to an all-white school.
Meanwhile meanwhile, Dorothy is dealing with an unhelpful supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who continues to be a roadblock to her advancement. Dorothy quickly realizes that her entire department will soon be out of a job once those new IBM computers are put to work, unless she gets ahead of the curve and figures out how to run them.
Back at the Space Task Group, Katherine is dealing with the dual challenges of conquering space flight and overcoming segregation. There are no facilities in her new office for colored folk, so Katherine must make long treks daily to use the restroom, among other indignities.
Eventually Katherine’s brilliance can no longer be hidden and not only is she double-checking other’s calculations but she’s calculating flight trajectories. Much to the dismay of Paul.
Directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” is a captivating, important story that has remained largely untold until now. It’s not all NASA all the time, the film also delves into the characters’ personal lives.
All the performances in this large ensemble are excellent and the movie captures the look and feel of that bygone era. It’s a fine film and sure to be a crowd pleaser.