Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
In the 1950s and 60s, three black mathematicians helped NASA catch up in the space race against the Soviet Union. While Hidden Figures is not visually remarkable, the mostly-untold story makes it a must-see film.
Katherine Johnson (Henson) grows up as a math prodigy, with her education fostered by teachers and her parents. She lands a job at NASA as an adult, working in a room of "coloured computers," overseen by Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), who is not promoted to the role of supervisor despite doing the work of one. Mary Jackson (Monáe) rounds out the trio, hoping to become an engineer.
Director Melfi presents the film with relatively little excitement or flare; things are rather straightforward. While the presentation sometimes veers into Afterschool Special territory, Hidden Figures has other elements that make it stand out.
NASA was not immune to the time, with segregation and talk of "separate but equal" rearing its ugly head in full force. As Katherine is promoted, she becomes the first black person in a workspace dominated by men in white dress shirts and black ties. Forced to walk half a mile to the nearest "coloured women" washroom, the racism is alive and ugly in Katherine's life.
Eventually, Katherine has had enough of this treatment and finally makes clear how she feels, soaking wet, after traveling half a mile in the rain just to use the washroom. Henson is explosive and her emotion is raw — the scene is performed beautifully.
Spencer and Monáe serve up wonderful supporting performances as well. The nuance and subtlety each bring to their roles is phenomenal. Spencer, in particular, is more of a character that the audience can root for, delivering scorching retorts to a racist supervisor and standing up for not just herself, but all of the black women that NASA had sidelined.
The screenplay is tightly written and while it's occasionally corny, the writing still respects the history of its subjects. The personal lives of the three women aren't really explored — there are just enough scenes for Katherine to find romance — but the real joy is seeing these three at work and excelling in it.
Despite the obstacles in place for Katherine, Dorothy and Mary throughout the film, they eventually triumph. With each scene, the characters are shown to be brilliant, using their exceptional intelligences to get ahead.
By the end of the movie, everyone seems to acknowledge that the three have some of the sharpest minds at NASA. The beauty of Hidden Figures is that audiences have discovered their historically significant genius too.