Spotlighting black female brain power that boosted America’s space program
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe & Kevin Costner
Directed by Theodore Melfi
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017
Behind every successful man, the old saying goes—as archaic and sexist as it may be—there’s a woman.
In the case of this movie, it’s literally, historically true.
Hidden Figures is the story of a group of black women who broke through racial and gender barriers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to work as mathematicians and other number crunchers and help NASA get America’s first astronauts, and its space program, off the ground.
In the pre-digital age, there were known as human “computers,” doing complex calculations about flight trajectories, orbit, reentry, splashdown and recovery with pencils, paper and pure brain power.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe star as their real-life counterparts Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.
Kevin Costner is the director of the Space Task Group, spurring his engineers to find a way ahead of the Soviets, who’ve already moved into an early lead in the space race. If you got a rousing rah-rah pep talk from the guy from Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Draft Day and McFarland, USA, wouldn’t it make you push that pencil just a little bit harder, a little bit later into the night, to beat the ruskies?
Jim Parsons—Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory—plays another egghead, time-shifted here to suit the situation: He’s a prickly lead engineer wary of a woman—and a Negro woman, at that—coming into his group. As the gentlemanly military man who courts Johnson, Mahershala Ali continues to add to his growing resume, on top of his breakout in the movie Moonlight and his recurring appearances in TV’s Luke Cage and House of Cards. Kristin Dunst is a supervisor who struggles to overcome the era’s hurdles separating employees into whites and coloreds.
Glen Powell plays young hotshot astronaut John Glenn, who won’t get into his space capsule for blastoff until NASA brings in Johnson to double-check the crucial—life or death—math on his orbit and re-entry.
But the clearly movie belongs to its three central stars, and director Theodore Melfi (who also directed Bill Murray in the wonderful St. Vincent) gives them all plenty of room to shine in a story that oozes inspiration and rings with righteous pride, thanks to the zippy, well-rounded script by Melfi and Alison Schroder, based on the nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all bring spunk, sass, heart and humor to their roles.
The title “hidden figures” refers to just how deep behind the scenes women like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were at NASA—and elsewhere—in the early 1960s. Even though their contributions proved to be immense to the space program, they were practically “lost” in a sea of white men in white shirts. But it also refers to the math required to get America into space and headed to the moon—numbers “that aren’t there yet,” as Costner’s character tells Johnson, calculations so advanced, they hadn’t been invented, figures waiting somewhere yet to be found.
Katherine Johnson was the woman who found them.
The movie tells the “hidden” story of three super-smart, headstrong women who made tremendous strides in a time of shameful segregation and civil unrest, a time when a group of black women helped white men get into space—but couldn’t use the same bathrooms, coffeepots, water fountains or schools.
Three women, it reminds us, who had another kind of “the right stuff.”