Hid­den Fig­ures

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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

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