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In the early ’60s, NASA used “colored computers”—i.e., African-American female mathematicians—to check the work of its white male engineers at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. These “hidden figures” were instrumental in getting the Mercury program (literally) off the ground, at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a fierce space race against the Soviets. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) were three of the key women involved in this project, and it’s their stories that unfold in director Theodore Melfi’s remarkable, inspirational film.
While all three women are clearly brilliant, they face an uphill battle for equality at NASA. Their work is vital to the success of the space program, but, because of their gender and race, they are continually forced to take a backseat to their white male counterparts. Johnson is initially promoted to the Space Task Group by manager Al Harrison (a sturdy Kevin Costner), who quickly spots her potential. Unfortunately, her male peers aren’t as thrilled; they make her use a “colored” coffee pot, and only reluctantly recognize her contributions. Adding further insult is the fact that there are no colored bathrooms in the building, so she has to walk a half mile to use one on the other side of the compound. When Harrison finally realizes why Johnson disappears for long stretches, he takes action and declares: “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
The other two women contend with troubles of their own. Vaughan oversees all of the “colored computers,” yet her white boss (Kirsten Dunst, perfect in a brief but crucial role) won’t give her a supervisor’s title or pay; meanwhile, Jackson dreams of becoming an engineer, but is forced to go to court to gain the right to study at an all-white school. Hidden Figures mainly deals with the women’s workplace and their struggles there, yet co-screenwriters Melfi and Allison Schroeder, adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book, manage to offer insightful glimpses into the ladies’ private lives—with Johnson, a widow with three young daughters, given the brightest spotlight as she is courted by a handsome National Guard officer (Mahershala Ali).
Henson, Spencer, and Monáe all excel in their roles and are a constant joy to watch. Jim Parsons is also quite good as Johnson’s racist co-worker, who redacts most of his reports before handing them over for her to check. Pharrell Williams, who serves as one of the film’s producers, contributes some catchy original songs (“Runnin’,” “I See a Victory”), while Melfi’s straightforward, unfussy direction allows the story to simply speak for itself.
Hidden Figures sheds illuminating light on dark, racist days, and is an empowering tale that will inspire adults and youngsters alike. Turns out that Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and their fellow Mercury Seven astronauts weren’t the only ones with the right stuff.