Hidden Figures (Twentieth Century Fox, PG)

Hidden Figures is an unabashedly feel-good movie.

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, an important milestone in the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, part of the Cold War competition between two nations striving for moral as well as technological superiority. Handsome and charismatic, Glenn became a national hero, and one of the public faces of NASA, which in those days was undeniably white and male. But the work of Glenn and other well-known figures was supported by the efforts of a large staff, some of whom were neither white nor male. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name by Margo Lee Shetterly, celebrates the accomplishments of three black women who played key behind-the-scenes roles at NASA—Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

Johnson has the most direct connection to Glenn’s historic flight. A mathematical prodigy, she began college at age 15, graduating with honors in mathematics and French at age 18. After working for years as a teacher (the only job she could find), she joined NASA as a “computer,” meaning literally one who did computations with pencil and paper. Despite being subject to discrimination on the basis of both her gender and race, Johnson’s talents were eventually recognized by her peers, and she was given the responsibility of, among other things, calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic 1959 space flight and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.

Vaughan was also a prodigy, earning a college degree in mathematics at age 19, and she also worked as a teacher before coming to work at NASA. She supervised a group of African American computers at NASA and was ahead of the time in recognizing the key role that computing languages would play in the future work of NASA. Jackson, who held a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science, worked as a mathematician for NASA after stints of teaching and secretarial work. If she were a man, her talents and interests would have obviously led to a career in engineering, but due to her race and gender she had many more hurdles to clear before achieving that goal.

Hidden Figures is an unabashedly feel-good movie, setting obstacles before its heroines and then showing their triumphs, while also offering the delights of a well-done period film. It offers up worthwhile history lessons as well as an inspirational tale, reminding audience members of the reality of historical racism and misogyny while also offering examples of coping strategies and of victories against the odds. Such dramatizations also have the advantage of telling you not only the facts of a situation (a task that could be handled by a documentary), but also what they mean to the characters.

Take the example of segregated schools. Presumably most Americans are aware that in the not so distant past, the law in some states required that white and black students attend different schools. That factual knowledge, however, does not convey what school segregation actually meant for the people who lived it. In the case of Katharine Johnson’s family, it meant there was no high school she could attend in the county where she lived, because the schools for black students ended at the eighth grade. Fortunately, her parents were willing and able to move so she could attend high school and then university, allowing her considerable mathematical talents to be developed. The point here is not that Jim Crow segregation managed to block the talents of every black person, but that those who succeeded in spite of it had to be better and work harder to achieve things that white people of similar talents could take for granted.

Sometimes Melfi has a tendency to ride a point a bit too hard, as in the repeated dramatizations of Johnson racing across the NASA campus to use the “colored” ladies room (none were available in the building where she worked). Still, given that many audience members are likely to be as oblivious as Johnson’s supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), when it comes to the realities of segregation—as a white man, he’s never had to worry about having a convenient place to pee, and doesn’t realize what a privilege that is—and thus these repeated scenes may be necessary to get through to them. Overall, Hidden Figures is such an enjoyable film and tells such an important story that I’m more than willing to forgive Melfi’s occasional tendencies to spell out his points a bit too clearly. | Sarah Boslaugh

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