Hidden Figures is an important, must-see movie. It tells the inspiring story of three African-American women who rise above the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 1960s to work as “human computers” at NASA, helping to launch Americans into space.
Based on the nonfiction book of that title by Margot Lee Shetterly, it presents a behind-the-scenes look at the women’s work at Langley Research Center, interspersed with their personal lives in segregationist Hampton, Virginia. Wonderful performances—and skillful direction by Theodore Melfi—bring to life the three intrepid pioneers.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) fights a personal battle against Jim Crow laws. She perseveres, persuading a judge to allow her to take essential graduate-level courses in physics. On entering the classroom—and noting aloud that she doesn’t see any seating restrictions (comparable to riding in the back of the bus)—she takes a chair at the head of the class.
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) finds herself doing the work of a supervisor without benefit of an actual promotion to that position. She must suffer condescending attitudes and worse, until, with time, her value is ultimately recognized.
Of the three, however, Katherine Goble, later Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), has the most dramatic challenges. From child math whiz become widowed mother and NASA “computer,” she is transferred to work in the very section charged with placing astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
After repeated scenes showing her running to a distant building for the nearest “colored” ladies room, we are treated to a powerful little drama that encapsulates a major theme of the movie: group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gathers a crowd as he physically knocks down the offensive restroom sign and with it another barrier. Katherine’s genius continues to help her reap the rewards of equal treatment as she gains top-secret clearance and respectful listeners—notwithstanding supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who resents a black woman being assigned to check his calculations.
This is an endearing and enduring story for all who care about people living the lives they’ve imagined. Here are role models who have left oversized footprints. Their vintage and recent photographs—shown at the end of the film—help highlight the realism of their legacy.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four).