*** 1/2 Stars
Breaking barriers with beautiful minds and the ‘right stuff.’
Short Take: A feel-good, populist historical drama about three African American women who worked as “computers” for NASA in the early days of space program. The film will remind you of how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and leave you wondering why you’ve never heard of these women until now.
REEL TAKE: When former astronaut Senator John Glenn passed a few weeks ago at the age of 95, there was a collective outpouring of respect and tributes of universally shared affection for this American hero. But very few people know about the team that got him back and forth from orbit safely. And fewer still know the [until now] untold story of three brilliant black women whose contributions were vital to the success of the Mercury project.
The crowd pleasing story of these women is one that crosses more than just racial boundaries. It’s an affirmation for every bespectacled little girl with her nose buried in a book or her eyes to the sky. Hidden Figures focuses on the journeys and the work of physicist Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) at NASA’s Langley Research Station in Virginia in 1961 (a similar time frame and location to the recent film Loving – but with a very different trajectory). Being educated, professional women in a man’s profession is tough enough, but factor in that they also happen to be black and they’ve got double the hurdles.
The three work as “computers” for NASA, “colored computers” to be exact. Katherine, the most gifted mathematician of our beautiful minds, is sent to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and the team doing the calculations for Glenn’s orbital mission. Mary is assigned to work on the capsule engineering team, and Dorothy serves as the manager of the “computers”, but without the title or compensation. As each woman faces racial injustice in the course of their jobs, the film is deliberately manipulative, but it’s also where it shines.
Second time director Theordore Melfi (who directed Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent a couple of years ago) brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of racism. The irony of the fact that we could trust “colored computers” with life or death calculations in order to gain the upper hand on the Russians in the space race, but couldn’t share our coffee pot or use the same rest room as these ladies is case in point. The restroom situation leads to one of the film’s cheesiest, but best delivered, lines when Katherine’s boss (Kevin Costner) eliminates segregated bathrooms at NASA for the benefit of the space program.
Henson, Spencer and Monae excel in their roles. I imagine that they were surprised to learn the stories of these impressive women as well and were honored to portray them. Costner, whose character is an amalgam of three different men on the NASA team, could do this performance in his sleep, but that’s no discredit; it’s just a character well within his wheelhouse. Newcomer Glen Powell’s sparkle made his small part as John Glenn stand out.
What Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson did was groundbreaking but the film is not. Everything tracks predictably, most of the characters are not particularly fleshed out, and the aesthetic depiction of 1961 is just a little too perfect. But make no mistake; you will cheer for this feel-good film. Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are hidden figures no more.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
Review by Michelle Keenan