Of all the unsung heroes of America’s heroic efforts to win the space race in the 1960’s, few are as unsung as the African-American women who did the math that computers were not yet ready to do, calculating the trajectories and orbits of space capsules. With the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, and now the release of Theodore Melfi’s eponymous film, the extraordinary story of the vital role these women played in launching American astronauts into orbit and toward the moon has finally been told.
Hidden Figures focuses on three of these women, each of whom would go on to long and distinguished careers with NASA, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math prodigy from an early age, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), an unrecognized supervisor who becomes a computer expert, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a young woman with the then unheard of ambition (for an African American woman) to become an engineer. Of course, in addition to actually doing the hard work required to get these jobs done, these women had to deal with the racism and sexism that was still a pervasive feature of American society in the 60’s. Johnson is the primary protagonist, and we follow as she is assigned to a work group that is trying to calculate the trajectory that will allow John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Working with a group of people who barely recognize her existence, she manages to create the math that allows Glenn to succeed.
Hidden Figures has a rather light tone, which works well in telling a story about the triumph of intellect and hard work over prejudice, and highlighting the absurdity of rules that segregated restrooms and coffeepots. The performances are in line with the tone, but uniformly excellent. The leads have great chemistry, and Kevin Coster, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali all excel in supporting roles. Although never heavy handed, Hidden Figures deals honestly with the American legacy of racism and oppression, and shows how talented and capable individuals overcame that legacy to achieve great things. A-