Hidden Figures

★ ★ ★ ☆

The title “Hidden Figures” has a double meaning, On one hand it refers to the mathematical calculations that went in to making John Glenn the first American man into space in 1962. On the other hand it describes Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American NASA mathematicians who did many of those calculations. “They let women do things at NASA,” says Johnson, “and it’s not because we wear skirts, it’s because we wear glasses.”

Taraji P. Henson is Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy who can, “look beyond the numbers.” At the beginning of 1961 she, and her two car pool pals, mathematician Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and aerospace engineer Jackson (Janelle Monáe), were working in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center.   

With just weeks before the launch each are singled out. Johnson’s genius with analytic geometry lands her a spot with the Space Task Group to calculate launches and landings. Vaughn takes over the programming of the new IMB computer and Jackson works with on the Mercury capsule prototype.

Each face hurdles do to their race. When Johnson first walks into her new, shared workspace, one of the men hands her an overflowing garbage can. “This wasn’t emptied last night.” Personnel supervisor Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) thinks Vaughan is too aggressive in her requests for a supervisor’s position and Jackson, despite her degree, is told she can only become a NASA qualified engineer if she attends classes at a local, segregated high school. “Every time we have a chance to get ahead,” Jackson says, “ they move the finish line.”   

The film focuses on Johnson but by the time the end credits roll all three have risen above the societal challenges placed on them to make invaluable contributions to the NASA space program.

“Hidden Figures” is a feel good, crowd pleaser of a movie. Based on true events, it portrays an upbeat version of the past. “Hidden Figures” is set in the same time frame as “Loving,” Jeff Nichols’ recent look at the legalization of interracial marriage, but values broad moments over Nichols’ more nuanced approach. A blend of history and uplift it is occasionally a bit too on the money—“We are living the impossible,” says Jackson’s boss Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa)—but engages with its subject and characters in an entertaining and heartfelt way.

Henson is the movie’s center and soul. Even when she slips into slapstick while doing extended runs to the “Coloured Bathroom” in a building located blocks away from her office. Those scenes are played for comedy but make an important point about the treatment of African American people in a less enlightened time.  

Monáe is a feisty presence and Spencer brings a hard-earned dignity to Vaughan. In the supporting category Kevin Costner does nice, effortless work as Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group.

“Hidden Figures” details a little known but vitally important part of American history. It’s a good-hearted look at a time of great change both in the macro—American cultural shifts in the space race and in terms of race—and in the micro universe of how African American women made their mark at NASA.

3 ½ STARS