FILM REVIEW – HIDDEN FIGURES. With Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst. Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language. 127 minutes.
The year gets off to a very good start with the wide release of HIDDEN FIGURES, a 2016 Oscar contender that reveals an important and mostly unknown chapter of American history. If you lived through the early days of the U.S. space program–or saw or read “The Right Stuff”–you know names like Alan Shepard and John Glenn and the other heroic astronauts who were part of the Mercury program to put an American astronaut in space.
What you probably don’t know is that in the days before the widespread use of computers, the exacting calculations involved in the project had to be done by “human computers,” brilliant mathematical minds who could handle the complex work involved. The movie is set at the NASA offices in Virginia where there are two groups of women doing this work. They reason they are separated is obvious and appalling–it is the era of racial segregation in the South. The government was happy to get the benefit of great minds, regardless of skin color, but the black women were degraded in ways big and small, including separate bathrooms. Ironically, at the time, the professional success of these women was a major step forward.
The movie focuses on three of the women. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a child prodigy who is assigned to the all-white, all-male enclave headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the no-nonsense NASA official whose job it is to get an American into space after the Russians have already succeeded in doing so. As presented in the film, he just cares if she can do the work, but her “colleagues” have other ideas. After she fills a cup from the communal coffee urn on her first day she’s greeted the second day by a separate coffee pot for “colored” use. Although she’s arguably the smartest person in the room, they resent her for her race and for her gender, a double whammy.
Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughn, who sees the handwriting on the wall for herself and her co-workers when the IBM mainframes arrive. Instead of bemoaning the potential loss of her job she becomes indispensible by learning more about computer programming than NASA’s experts. Meanwhile Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is encouraged to get an advanced degree to help her career, but discovers that the schools offering the courses she needs are “white only.”
What’s absolutely inspiring about these stories is how these women not only don’t give up, but persevere and ultimately find vindication and recognition. In a key moment John Glenn (Glen Powell) is reassured about his launch when he is told that Johnson has reconfirmed her calculations. The principal white characters of Harrison and calculator department head Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) are less about being racist than having to take their blinders off. We see the racists as well, such as Johnson’s co-workers, but it’s a reminder that ignorance and learned prejudices can be overcome by experience and open-mindedness.
If the movie is powerful, it could just as easily have become a story of plaster saints attaining their pre-ordained glory. However, the filmmakers show us these women were real people who had family concerns, who face romantic opportunities, and who are able to laugh and enjoy their lives despite the injustices they’re forced to take for granted. “Hidden Figures” soars in bringing their stories to light (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) and it’s long past due.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.