The moment Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, America began mythologizing its victory in the Space Race over the Soviet Union. Led by the soaring rhetoric of the late President John F. Kennedy, America showed its technological and moral superiority over the Soviets, reclaiming that little bit of national innocence that was lost following the assassination of JFK and the political turmoil of the ‘60s. As the victors, America was able to create its own narrative about its victory in the Space Race, one that overshadowed the sins that loom over our nation to this very day despite the fact that so many want to pretend that it has all been left in the past – systematic racism.
Hard as we try as a nation to pretend that the collective work of countless people that put a man on the Moon wasn’t corrupted by some of the darkest elements of our history doesn’t change the fact that, like everything else we hold dear in America, it was. For three black women working for NASA in Virginia during the early ‘60s, their talents were overlooked in the time of segregation. For this trio of women, the glass ceiling was reinforced with the rusted iron bars of systematic racism. Their story is now the subject of the film from director Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures, which proves to be the crowd-pleaser of the winter, a historical tale told with pathos and ample humor. It’s a movie that reminds us that America is at its best when living up to the pluralistic standards that we as a nation all too often find elusive, but remains the benchmark by which we should strive.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius, one capable of handling complex forms of arithmetic with ease. Along with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine works at a segregated office in Virginia aiding in the computation of the math that will send American astronauts into space. This trio of capable women aren’t presented with a fair chance in a society that sees them as second class citizens, as evidenced by Dorothy’s attempts to get promoted to the position of supervisor despite having been performing the job for over a year. When the Soviets are able to launch Sputnik and follow that up with sending Yuri Gararin into space, NASA is working overtime to get Americans into space. Katherine is moved into the top secret corner of NASA in order to double check the calculations of the engineers. Working under the stern eye of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his underling Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine must battle the inherent racism and sexism of her coworkers as they work to launch Alan Shepard (Dane Davenport) and finally John Glenn (Glen Powell) into outer space.
On top of just the basic obstacle of overcoming prejudices to contribute to send an American into space, Katherine is also a widow and mother of three. With the help of her mother and the church, she’s able to work the long hours and still provide for her children. Eventually, Katherine starts seeing Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) and the two share an immediate connection. Meanwhile, Dorothy still struggles for her constant hard work to be acknowledged by her icy cold supervisor Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst) as Mary must face legal hurdles in order to get the schooling required to become an engineer herself.
The trio of leading ladies make Hidden Figures an absolute delight. Taraji P. Henson gives an assured performance, one that starts out with an incredibly meek Katherine that gains confidence as her work consistently proves her invaluable worth. There’s a real delicate balance that Henson strikes with the role. Octavia Spencer brings a quality of assured professionalism to her role of Dorothy, a character that won’t rest on her laurels waiting for a chance that won’t ever come. Of all the lines that garnered laughter or applause, Spencer has the one that earned the biggest reaction when calmly informing Vivian that she is in fact quite prejudiced. The biggest surprise of Hidden Figures is Janelle Monáe. The popstar is a firecracker as Mary Jackson, often carrying herself with a no nonsense attitude that electrifies the screen. Between this and her role in Moonlight, Janelle Monáe has quickly proven that she is a fantastic actress and one of the breakout stars of 2016.
Hidden Figures is a pure crowd-pleaser, one that strikes a deft balance between its ample humor and the historical drama. In adapting the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroder find comedy and inspiration in a movie that dares you not to love it. Of course there are obvious moments of embellishment to craft a better narrative than history provided, but when it works as well as it does here there’s little to complain about in regards of true accuracy. Hidden Figures is a movie with big laughs, moments that inspire rapturous applause, and those moments that tug on the heartstrings. This is a movie that finds Melfi hitting the notes that he was aiming for with his middling St. Vincent, a massive leap in the right direction.