Hidden Figures: Prepare to Cheer

B+ Historical drama
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
From a non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Directed by Theodore Melfi

When you think about the people who put the first Americans into space, you probably imagine a bunch of white men. You might occasionally remember an astronaut’s wife, but her job was limited to looking brave, and she too was white.

The new movie Hidden Figures pokes a lot of holes into that image, allowing you to see the African-American women who made the early space program possible. They were mathematicians – many of them brilliant – who crunched the numbers needed to send a man into space and bring him safely back to Earth.

In telling the story of these unsung heroines – all doing their job while facing racism and sexism – Theodore Melfi and his collaborators have created a film stuffed with history, heart-warming victories, and a lot of cues for the audience to break into cheers. Every time one of the three leads figures out an important formula, or says something clever that exposes racism, or when a white character takes a step away from their assumed privilege, the audience yells and applauds. At least that happened with the audience I attended.

The setting is Virginia, 1960-62. The civil rights movement is heating up, and white southerners are trying hard to tamp it down.

The film gives us a shock early on: a department at NASA called “Colored Computers.” The word computer originally meant a person who manually crunch numbers for a living. The meaning would change in the early 1960s. I assume you know what colored meant on a door in 1960 Virginia. One of the three main characters, Katherine Johnson, must walk a mile round trip in high heels to use the “Colored Ladies Room.”

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), a brilliant mathematician, gets placed at the heart of NASA, working with some of the top people. She’s immediately suspected and despised by co-workers hoping she will fail. A widow with three children, she also gets Hidden Figures‘ romantic subplot, falling in love with a handsome National Guardsman played by Mahershala Ali (who seems to be in every other movie this year).

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has been supervising the “colored computers” group for years, yet she cannot get promoted to Supervisor. She guesses (correctly) that the new IBM machine will make human computers obsolete, so she learns Fortran and turns those who work under her into programmers.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to be an engineer. Both her gender and her race pretty much disqualify her for the job.

These three main characters are real people. Katherine Johnson is still alive. I’m sure the filmmakers took some liberties to create a well-structured movie.

I’m pretty sure that most of the white characters are fictitious. Kevin Costner plays a top NASA leader who finds himself depending more and more on Katherine’s equations. And as he does so, he finds himself fighting office segregation simply to get his work done.

Other white, fictitious characters aren’t so open-minded. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory) play racists – although they’re not always aware of their racism. Parsons’ character is sexist, as well.

One important white character is unquestionably real: John Glenn (Glen Powell). He’s likeable from the start. When the seven Mercury astronauts meet-and-greet the staff, he shakes hands with the black employees, even while his handlers try to steer him away. Later on, he will trust only Katherine’s numbers before being shot into space.

Hidden Figures provides a light, easy-to-digest version of a forgotten part of US history. It’s a feel-good movie that actually has something to feel good about. Try to catch it with an enthusiastic audience.