By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Heartwarming and educational, Hidden Figures more than lives up to its title.
In telling the story of a trio of African-American women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) who played crucial roles at NASA in the first American manned space flights, the film finally brings wide attention to their contributions, years after the fact.
And though the bones of the story have been seen countless times before, the difference in seeing black women at the chalkboard or at the computer rather than just another white guy really is stirring. It's not just that these women were incredible, accomplished people in their own right; it's that we're seeing a story that has gone untold for far, far too long. And, equally as important, that numbers know no gender nor color.
Henson stars as Katherine Goble Johnson, a math prodigy who's working as a "computer" — literally, one who computes numbers — in early-1960s Virginia, where even NASA buildings continue to have segregated work spaces and restrooms. But her alacrity with analytic geometry eventually lands her a spot on the elite team that's helping compute the trajectory of flights to be taken by astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn in the heated race to beat the Russians in the space race.
Among her coworkers are Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), a hyper-competent manager and technician whose skills are essentially ignored by her racist boss (Kirsten Dunst), and Mary Jackson (Monáe), who has to sue for the right to attend night classes in a segregated high school in order to become an engineer. All three give winningly engaging performances.
Director Theodore Melfi, who cowrote the script with Allison Schroeder (adapting a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly), keeps the film's spirit buoyant, as if he, too, is so excited to tell the story of these remarkable women that he's giddy. He doesn't skimp on showing the daily injustices that the women faced — Johnson, for instance, had to trek so far daily to the restroom that her supervisor (Kevin Costner) thinks she's skipping work — but we get to watch these women slowly, surely change their small piece of the world for the better and, by extension, the rest of the country as well.
(PG for thematic elements and some language; United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd., and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive)