If you ever wonder why we still have Black History Month or Women’s History Month, look no further than “Hidden Figures.” Some very talented, dedicated black women were essential to NASA’s early achievements, but how many Americans know about them?
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until February or March to hear their story. Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” does so in classic feel-good movie fashion, without diminishing the barriers they faced. If it’s too glossy and simplistic at times, that’s a small price to pay for its virtues.
“Hidden Figures” focuses mainly on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math prodigy assigned to the Space Task Group responsible for John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission. Most of Katherine’s co-workers resent her presence, but she earns the respect of the project’s director, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). She’s so good, in fact, that Glenn won’t launch until she checks the numbers (a nice tribute to the recently deceased astronaut’s egalitarian decency).
The other women are no less remarkable. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is an unappreciated office manager, but when she sees a room filling up with a giant IBM computer, she decides to teach herself code. Mary Jackson, played by singer and KCK native Janelle Monae, is a natural-born engineer forced to clear her own career path.
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All of them are pushing against a system that values their numbers but not their humanity.
Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and co-writer Allison Schroeder, adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, rely on the stirring speeches and life lessons associated with high school sports movies. The film smooths out the details beyond what’s cinematically necessary, making it seem as if these difficult group efforts rested almost entirely on the main characters’ shoulders.
“Hidden Figures” excels in two essential areas that make the flaws tolerable. One is the portrayal of the constant indignities faced by the leads.
Katherine has to run across the NASA campus to use the restroom, thanks to the lack of “colored” facilities at her new office. Mary can’t take night classes at an all-white high school without going to court for the privilege. The coding book Dorothy needs can be found only into the whites-only section of the library. Many people would (and did) become overwhelmed by these frustrations, but these women are as determined as they are smart. And they are very smart.
This brings up the movie’s other saving grace: the cast, especially the central trio. Henson ventures far from her flamboyant performance on TV’s “Empire,” playing Katherine as a quiet genius whose awkwardness can’t disguise her strength of will. Spencer gets some cliched “sassy” moments, but she’s too careful and thoughtful to let Dorothy become a stereotype.
The big surprise is Monae, who has already done her hometown proud in the music industry and looks poised to dominate the acting world, too (she’s also in “Moonlight”).
Mary is the most outspoken character, and Monae deftly portrays the tension between her natural confidence and the fear that it won’t be enough. The scene where she manipulates the judge in her school-access case is worth the price of admission.
It also illustrates exactly why “Hidden Figures” is more than just an inspirational history lesson. It does the vital service of bringing long-ignored figures out of hiding and making their case to the world.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
Rated PG. Time: 2:07.