I’m a history buff, and I love to discover history that has been lost or missed for decades. It often makes a good movie, as we’ve recently seen with Louis Zamperini (Unbroken) and Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Now we can add the names Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson to that list, the triumvirate at the center of Hidden Figures. I’d been looking forward to this film from the first time I saw a trailer; I was not disappointed.
Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) was a child prodigy in mathematics who grew up to work for NASA during the early days of the space race. She was a human computer, checking calculations made by scientists. This was at a time when prejudice held that science wasn’t suitable for either blacks or women. There was a full contingent of black women working at the main NASA facility at Langley, Virginia, before its later move to Houston. They were segregated into the West Building – the only place where there were “colored” bathrooms – under the de facto supervision of Dorothy (Octavia Spencer). It was de facto since the bureaucracy, embodied in the character of Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst), refused to give her the designation and the commensurate pay raise. Mary (Janelle Monae) was permanently assigned to the engineering group, a discipline in which she had distinct talent.
The movie chronicles the racism they faced even as they sought to help the country make the leap into space. It could be systemic, like the roadblocks in Mary’s way to prevent her from getting the education credit to be recognized as an engineer. It could be personal, like the engineer played by Jim Parsons who redacts much of his work before turning it over to Katherine, even though the redactions make proper checking impossible. Or it could be technological advancement like the IBM computer that stands to replace the West Building group, if the computer engineers can get it to work.
What makes the movie a winner is the wit and determination the women utilize to overcome the obstacles. In particular Henson knows how to deliver a devastating comeback with the sweetest smile, though she does also have one scene where Katherine’s frustrations explode in volcanic fury. Sitting in the audience, I wanted to cry out “You go, girl!”
Octavia Spencer is fantastic as always, especially in her scenes with Dunst that are a masterclass for actors. Next month she’ll be back on the screen in The Shack, playing God. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Almighty lobbied for her to be cast. A delightful surprise is singer Janelle Monae, who’d only done a couple of voice acting jobs before a double debut with Figures and Moonlight. She’s perfect as the sassy and smart Mary, holding her own with both Spencer and Henson like an experienced pro. The film also features Kevin Costner as NASA administrator Al Harrison. Costner has developed into a fine character actor, proving there is life after stardom.
Director/Producer/Screenwriter Theodore Melfi was known mostly for the Billy Murray film from 2014, St. Vincent. He collaborated with Allison Schroeder on adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book for the screen, and they did a stellar job of it. The dialog crackles, but this is also a movie where silent looks speak paragraphs. Particular kudos to Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Set Decorator Missy Parker, and Costume Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who nail the look of the early sixties.
It’s wonderful timing that Hidden Figures is being released now. It gives a very strong reminder that the “good old days” were not good for everyone, and lets us see not only how far we’ve come but how necessary it was that we made those changes. The movie ends with footage of the real Katherine Johnson, now in her 90s, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
These figures should never be hidden again.