The wonderful thing about history is that you can always find terrific stories that haven’t been told before if you look hard enough. That’s certainly the case with Hidden Figures, a joyful film about three amazing African-American women who had a major impact on the country’s space program during a time where they were still being denied basic human rights.
It may seem like an odd choice as a second film for Theodore Melfi, who directed the Bill Murray comedy St. Vincent a few years back, but he ably finds a way into the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), whom we meet as their car is broken down at the side of the road on their way to work at Langley in Virginia.
The women are part of the West Computing division, made up entirely of black women with higher math skills to solve the complex problems involved with building the rockets that will send men into space. From a very young age, Kathryn was good with math and geometry, so she gets assigned to the team of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who has been tasked with getting a man into orbit around the Earth and then bring him home safely. Mary is assigned to the Mercury 7 project, but she has dreams of becoming a full engineer, which requires attending engineering classes at a segregated school.
Dorothy has been running the department and doing the job of a supervisor without getting compensated properly. At the same time, IBM is trying to set up the first machine that can perform the complicated math at a faster rate, and Dorothy quickly realizes that learning computer programming can put her in a good position to remain relevant with the ever-changing technology.
Clearly, there’s a lot of storytelling needed to follow these three women and their separate journeys. The fact their film is set in the same time period in Virginia as Jeff Nichols’ recent Loving is hard to ignore, mainly because Melfi gives this film a lighter touch, never getting too heavy into the dramatic tension that comes with showing women having to deal with the more violent side of racism in the ‘60s. This just isn’t that type of movie. Even when a white police officer shows up in that opening scene, possibly creating conflict, once he realizes they’re working with the astronauts, he offers them a police escort to work.
The inherent racism is more subdued, occurring usually due to the slightly more veiled prejudices of white supervisors like Paul Stafford, the project’s chief engineer as played by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons. He never has much confidence in Katherine’s abilities. The other one is Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dust), who is inadvertently holding many of these women back from fulfilling their potential merely due to Jim Crow laws of the time.
On the other hand, there are some open-minded people at Langley like John Glenn (as played by Glenn Powell) and Harrison himself, who only care about their mission of beating the Russians into space. Still, it’s a little disconcerting when you realize how much American progress may have been hindered by white people until they became more accepting of these amazing women.
The performances are good, especially Henson and Spencer, although they do get a little overblown at times, mainly when they need to express their frustrations with the system that keeps holding them back.
Despite everything going on at Langley, the film also gets into the domestic life of the three women, Katherine being a widowed mother trying to care for her three kids while also working. She eventually meets a good man—another fine turn by Mahershala Ali in a year where he’s been everywhere—who gives her the needed emotional support.
All of this is accompanied by bright poppy songs by Pharrell Williams, including the song “Runnin’” used every time Katherine has to run to the “colored women’s” bathroom a half-mile away—and almost guaranteed to become a theme for anyone with a weak bladder.
On top of that, Hidden Figures is able to deal with complex math and science without making the movie so smart it’s likely to go over everyone’s heads. At times, it ends up appearing like a cross between A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13—even borrowing one of the dramatic third act beats from the Ron Howard film—but the results are a feel-good inspirational story that rarely feels preachy, even if it also never goes out of its way to challenge the viewer. It instead offers us a pleasant and enjoyable history lesson.
Hidden Figures opens nationwide on Jan. 6, 2017. This review was first published on Dec. 12, 2016.