Here's the thing—it's kind of hard to not like Hidden Figures, at least insofar as it's the simultaneous story of uncredited black women who were so awesome at their jobs that they literally made safe space flight possible, yet they were treated so poorly amidst the racist atmosphere of 1960s Virginia that we're all kind of like, "What the hell, man!?" That said, the overall tone seems a tad breezy for the subject matter. It could be that director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi wanted to tell the story, which was based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, in a palatable fashion, but you just know that the actual story was far more intense.
We mostly follow Katherine Goble/Johnson (Taraji P Henson), a lifelong math ultra-genius who works as a human computer for the space program at NASA alongside dozens of other black women. Along with her close friends/fellow NASA employees Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine attempts to deduce the incredibly complex science to launch John Glenn into space, orbit the planet and then return safely while the Russians work toward the same thing. Of course, it's the '60s, and white people are basically the absolute worst, so even though Katherine can do any math that comes her way and Dorothy teaches her damn self how to program NASA's newly-minted (and room-sized) IBM supercomputer and Mary is some kind of goddamn engineering phenom, they have to fight some pretty nasty racism on the part of people like lead engineer Paul Stafford (Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons) and supervisor Vivian Mitchell (a perfectly condescending and bitchy Kirsten Dunst).
Of course, we all know the gist of the story—John Glenn was shot farther into space than any human before—but Hidden Figures teaches us that Glenn's flight (and the subsequent moon landing in 1969) simply wouldn't have happened if these women, particularly Katherine, hadn't been on the case. But it isn't like anyone makes it easy. Yes, Kevin Costner as NASA bigwig Al Harrison believes in Katherine and knocks down "Colored Ladies Restroom" signs and stuff, but it seems more like he divides people into helpful or not-helpful categories more than he's a race crusader. Still, that was a pretty big damn deal in those days, and before we realize it Katherine is blowing minds in Pentagon briefings, both as a black person and a woman, two things that were unheard of in places of power, and figuring out the algorithms and cosines and other math jargon that even the brightest NASA minds had struggled with. And it's triumphant, even if a bit heavy-handed at times, so we feel for Katherine and her friends and want them to succeed so that every dumb cracker who assumed they were incapable will have to ditch their shit-eating, racist attitudes, which they eventually do (to no small amount of satisfaction).
Henson's performance exists in the sweet spot between vulnerable mother and widow and complete badass, unafraid to excel at math or to fight for her race and gender. And though Spencer and Monáe prove indispensable to the pacing and overall feel of Hidden Figures, some of the impact of the real-world achievements made by the women they portray winds up dissipated as they're relegated to periodic bits of comic relief.
Still, it is Katherine's story, and there's much to enjoy here. The sting of racism cuts deep even now, and we must never forget that these people literally had to be complete geniuses and fight their asses off to receive even a modicum of respect. It's an important chapter in history nonetheless, and told in an extremely watchable fashion. Don't be surprised if Hidden Figures becomes required viewing for students down the road at some point and, we hope, we start to get other films about the incredible people of color throughout history who perhaps didn't get the recognition they so obviously deserved.
+Important history; satisfying- Sometimes heavy-handed; a tad oversimplified; white people
Directed by Theodore Melfi
With Henson, Spencer, Monae and Costner
Violet Crown, Regal, PG-13, 127 min.