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Hidden Figures, about 3 black women at NASA in the 1960s, is the best kind of historical drama

It’s a delightful, inspiring story that’s still relevant today.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect film for the holiday season than Hidden Figures: an inspirational, family-friendly historical drama about three black women whose work at NASA was instrumental in putting John Glenn into orbit around Earth.

That could have been the recipe for a much hokier film, but the story — based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly — is just Hollywood enough to stay entertaining, but smart enough to know how important its story is. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) sticks to every convention of the genre, but sometimes conventions are there for a reason. The story works, and the characters shine. (Pharrell Williams executive-produced the movie and supervised its soundtrack, which also helps account for its overall buoyancy.)

Rating


4


The result is delightful, and surprisingly timely. Hidden Figures blends contemporary conversations about race, gender, diversity in STEM fields, and patriotism in a thought-provoking historical package. And most of all, it boasts three terrific leading ladies (and a few great supporting actors too).

Hidden Figures is set during the early days of the space race

It’s NASA in the early 1960s, and the space race is on. Other changes are afoot in America too — the civil rights movement, for one — but Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a widow and a “computer” at NASA who’s also a bit of a savant with numbers, is focused is on her job and her three daughters.

Jim Crow laws are still in effect in Virginia, but Johnson still managed to earn degrees in math and get a job in the “Colored Computer” division at NASA. (The race to get to the moon ahead of Russia was such a priority that talent was valued at NASA wherever it was found, even in the brains of a group of people — black women — who might have been considered unemployable in the past.) Among Goble’s colleagues are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), both brilliant women with aspirations that extend far beyond the “Colored Computer” division.

Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures
Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

One day, Goble is assigned to work with Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), checking his math as he works with a team of (white, male) scientists supervised by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who are working toward a way to put John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit around the Earth. The whole room works long, long hours, but they can’t see their way around the problem. But Goble can.

Meanwhile, Jackson is fighting to attend classes at an all-white school so she can earn a degree in engineering — which means getting the court to intervene. And Vaughan, long barred from supervisory positions (even though she does the work of a supervisor) because of the color of her skin, begins to notice the giant IBM computers being installed on the campus. Quickly realizing that those machines will put her and her colleagues — a room full of black women who also work as computers — out of a job, she knows what she must do: learn to code.

The women’s friendship provides them with mutual support — and, in Goble’s case, a suitor in the form of US Army Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who has to overcome his own prejudices about what women can do. The hours are long, the work is hard, and the prejudice they encounter in the workplace, even when it seems unintentional, is demoralizing. But their desire to do what they do best is laced with patriotism, and nobody ever said trailblazing would be easy.

Hidden Figures leans on its characters’ struggles with racism and sexism to raise the stakes

Perhaps the wisest choice made in Hidden Figures — besides casting Henson, Spencer, and Monáe, and bringing Costner and Ali alongside them — was to subtly incorporate many of the things that would worry people like Goble, Vaughan, or Jackson, black women working in technological fields that were rapidly changing.

The computers watch John Glenn’s launch
The computers watch John Glenn’s launch.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The most obvious of these is the fight for civil rights for black people; the characters undergo petty and not-so-petty indignities at every turn just because “that’s the way things are.” Vaughan is kicked out of a public library for venturing out of the “colored” section. Jackson has to go before a judge and plead to be able to take night classes at a segregated school. Vaughan’s supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) is called “Mrs. Michael,” while Vaughan is just “Dorothy.” And Goble, in a room full of white men all day, discovers a coffee pot labeled “colored” for her after she commits the sin of drinking from the common pot. (There’s no coffee made in her pot, of course; she’ll have to do it herself.) To relieve herself, she has to trot half a mile across campus to the building in which the other black women work, because she’s informed that there’s no bathroom for her in that building.

The only white person who seems moderately oblivious to the built-in disadvantages of Goble’s race and gender is Harrison, who is harried and tired but kindly, and just wants to figure out how to launch the damn rocket. But even he can’t see what seems really obvious to us: that Goble is operating at a massive disadvantage even while she’s twice as smart as any of the others, and that blindness startles him when he finally comes to see it (and, in a great scene, decides to take matters into his own hands).

The women who were once the human computers, but have learned to code, head for the IBM mainframes at NASA. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

And yet, while these concerns don’t take a back seat to the story in any way, the way they’re integrated into a larger, exciting plot about scientific discovery (making calculations and programming look exciting is no small feat) means they’re always surprising. We occasionally forget, in the audience, that these women aren’t just working at the highest level of their fields, but that they’re also lacking the home court advantage of their colleagues. This raises the stakes, serving the narrative and heightening the drama.

A secondary but important matter in Hidden Figures is the impending replacement of “computers” — real live human beings doing precise calculations — with IBM mainframes. When Mad Men did this plot, it somewhat comedically posed the machines as menacing overlords that drive poor Ginsberg insane. But for Hidden Figures — and especially for Dorothy Vaughan — the machines are a threat to her livelihood, one that can be conquered by figuring out how to be better at using them than everyone else. And that’s just what she does.

That’s especially poignant in a film concerned with math, engineering, and programming, all fields in which both women and people of color are deeply underrepresented. Seeing these women’s stories underlines not just the size of their accomplishment but also how far there is left to go.

There’s nothing terribly innovative about Hidden Figures from a cinematic perspective. But, as great historical dramas should, it disarmingly tells a true story that takes the audience out of present-day circumstances but still raises contemporary issues. It reminds us of all the stories in our history that have yet to be told. Hidden Figures is charming, smart, capable, and uncompromising — just like its subjects.

Hidden Figures opens in limited theaters on Christmas Day and nationwide on January 6.

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