There’s seemingly not a chapter of American history that Hollywood can’t turn into feel-good, audience-pleasing schmaltz — and if that’s going to be the norm, then let there be equal-opportunity schmaltz. “Hidden Figures,” to its credit, does this sort of thing well, and it does it on behalf of black women who are really good at math.
In telling the story of three mathematicians whose beautiful minds were integral to getting NASA astronauts into space and back down again, the movie not only stirringly celebrates intelligent women of color (and the very idea of science itself), but it also offers a more realistic-seeming portrayal of racism than we generally get in American movies.
When a film portrays a 1960s racist as foaming at the mouth, it allows 21st century white audiences to sit back and think, “I would never be like that guy. I would have been friendly and enlightened.” “Hidden Figures” shows white people who function in a racist system, so much so that they don’t even think about issues like segregation and employment barriers; in a world where inequality is hard-wired into everything, being racist can be as simple as not asking questions and just going with the flow.
At Langley in 1961, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as “computers” for NASA, calculating by hand the intricate geometry and engineering required to launch the first manned space missions. (In a flashback, we see young Katherine tackling blackboard problems that confound students twice her age.)
Dorothy does the work of a supervisor over the computers’ department — without the title or pay raise, of course. She and her colleagues report to Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who hides her disdain behind a brittle layer of Southern charm. When Katherine is sent to perform calculations for department head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Mrs. Mitchell tells her, “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine; don’t embarrass me.”
Katherine excels at her work, despite having to deal with redacted figures (women weren’t given security clearance), co-workers who put in a segregated coffee pot, and a “colored” ladies room that’s on the other side of the Langley campus, half a mile away. (And you thought “backwards and in heels” was a challenge.) Mary, meanwhile, jumps through legal hurdles to attend the segregated Virginia school that provides the necessary training to become an engineer, while Dorothy realizes that the giant IBM machine is about to put the human computers out of a job, which inspires her to learn how to use the room-size electronic brain that intimidates even the NASA scientists.
“Hidden Figures” isn’t just an oppression narrative, however; it’s a movie about people who are good at their jobs, and how their slow, difficult rise runs parallel with the space program’s growing pains, as Russian satellites start orbiting the earth. The film even finds time for widowed Katherine to be courted by a handsome National Guard officer (Mahershala Ali). Ali’s charisma is electrifying, but the movie belongs to Henson, Spencer and Monáe. They create vivid, funny, rich personalities, even as you can tell how much co-writers Theodore Melfi (who also directed) and Allison Schroeder, adapting the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, are streamlining complicated events and interpersonal relationships.
Dunst and Jim Parsons (as a chief engineer) portray a tight-lipped superiority that’s never overplayed. Dunst’s one moment of grudging respect for Dorothy plays all the better for its restraint, and Costner adds another captivating 1960s white-shirt-black-tie guy to his filmography. (File this one with “Thirteen Days” and “JFK.”) The period details feel true and lived-in, with the exception of the cars; the parking lot at NASA looks like a gleaming vintage auto show, all fins and no dents or mud. (Also, where the heck are the slide rules? They would have been essential tools of the trade for early-’60s NASA math types. Did the filmmakers think modern audiences wouldn’t know what they were?)
The songs by Pharrell Williams — contemporary compositions designed to sound like period ones — add some sprightliness and heft to the proceedings, and they mesh well with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s understated score.
“Hidden Figures” is feel-good history, but it works, and it works on behalf of heroes from a cinematically under-served community. These smart, accomplished women had the right stuff, and so does this movie.