HIDDEN FIGURES, historical drama, rated PG, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Return with us now to those chilling days of yesteryear, not all that long in the past, when Jim Crow ruled the land — in some parts of the country by law as well as by tradition. In 1961, in NASA’s facility in Hampton, Virginia, the races and facilities were divided into white and colored, and people on the privileged side of the fence accepted the status quo without giving it much thought. “I have nothing against your people,” Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is told by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). “I’m sure you believe that’s true,” Vaughan replies.
Vaughan is an African American woman whose mathematical and technical brilliance and superb organizational skills are not enough to get her the title of supervisor, despite the fact that she’s doing that level of work in her department. Her department is called Colored Computers, and if that sounds even more ridiculous than it should, it’s because in 1961, “computers” weren’t machines, they were people who were very good at math.
Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women, Vaughan, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson ( Janelle Monáe), brilliant mathematicians who were employed in NASA’s program in the early ’60s. Their jobs carried a second-class status that was defined by color and exacerbated by gender. The fact that they were employed by NASA at all was a reflection not so much of social enlightenment, but of the fact that numbers and mathematical calculations are race- and gender-neutral. In an opening scene, a redneck cop interrogates the women when he finds their car broken down by the side of the road. He is astonished to learn that they are NASA technicians. “I didn’t know they hired —” “Oh yes,” Vaughan cuts in. “NASA employs a lot of women these days.” Director and co-screenwriter Theodore Melfi (St.
Vincent) uses a traditional structure in adapting (with co-writer Allison Schroeder) Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book about these three pioneering women in the American space program. There’s nothing gritty or groundbreaking in his storytelling techniques, but the comfortable, movie-moment-strewn approach seems to suit the tale, and moves it along in a way that’s accessible, satisfying, and extremely effective.
This is helped in no small way by the presence of Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the program director in charge of overcoming the Soviet lead by putting men into space, and eventually on the moon. At his best, Costner can embody the Jimmy Stewart brand of decency that makes us feel a little better about ourselves. When Johnson is assigned from the Colored Computer pool to Harrison’s headquarters to assist in top-level calculations, she is met with an atmosphere that ranges from bland curiosity to outright antagonism (the latter primarily from her immediate supervisor there, played by Jim Parsons). But Harrison, with his Father Knows Best approach, gets things smoothed out, at least when they are brought to his attention.
The movie combines the NASA stuff with some personal story material, and there’s a nice romantic subplot involving Katherine Johnson (a widow with some adorable daughters) and a suitor, Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). But the main event is the push toward putting Col. John Glenn in the Friendship 7 rocket that will blast him into orbit, and getting the extraordinarily difficult calculations right. In pursuit of this, NASA has brought in a room-sized mainframe IBM machine that can calculate staggering numbers of equations in a fraction of the time of which human minds are capable.
The problem is, Big Blue is sometimes a little off. And so a classic John Henry vs. the steam drill confrontation emerges, with Johnson teetering on a ladder at a blackboard while the computer spits out punch cards. And when the IBM machine starts turning out conflicting sets of numbers on the day of the launch, Glenn (Glen Powell) demands to have Johnson personally check the figures. If she says they’re good, he’ll go.
Melfi and the principal actors were recently interviewed on television. “We know so much about John Glenn and Friendship 7,” Costner said. “How is it we didn’t know this?”
Melfi’s direction is solid and assured, and out of his excellent cast, special mention has to go to Henson for the subtlety and quiet power she brings to the role of Katherine Johnson. But Spencer, Monáe, and the rest are close behind.
All three of these extraordinary mathematicians went on to long and distinguished careers in their fields, and this inspiring movie swells the heart with pride at the same time that it makes us cringe to remember the institutional barriers that cheapened and thwarted the lives and ambitions of our fellow citizens in the recent past. In 2015, the ninety-sevenyear-old Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. — Jonathan Richards
Breaking barriers: From left, Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer
From left, mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson