Black women in old fashioned clothes like they are celebrating

Enjoying a rare happy moment are NASA math whizzes (from left) Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). (Photo: Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Hidden Figures tells a fact-based story so fascinating that you wonder why it hasn’t been told until now. Of course, if it had been, they would have had to change the title.

“Hidden Figures” refers to complex mathematical equations that had to be solved before the U.S. could send men into space in the early 1960s. But it also refers to the people who helped to solve those equations.

Specifically, it refers to a group of black women who—because of their race and gender—labored under trying conditions. Directed and co-written by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film focuses on three of these women who worked as human “computers” at NASA’s Virginia headquarters in the midst of America’s frantic “space race” with the Soviet Union.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the unofficial supervisor of the “colored computers,” who toil separately from their white counterparts thanks to the segregation that remains the law of the land in Virginia. Dorothy would like to be the official supervisor so she can earn a salary commensurate with her responsibilities, but a racist superior (Kirsten Dunst) tells her that’s not in the cards.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) dreams of bettering herself by becoming an engineer, but she learns the necessary classes must be taken at a white-only school.

At the center of the tale, Katherine G. Johnson (Empire’s Taraji P. Henson) is reassigned to the Space Task Force, an elite group directed by the demanding Al Harrison (Kevin Cosner). It’s a crucial job, but she’s shackled by impossible limitations.

As a black woman, she’s forced to sprint to a “colored only” restroom several buildings away every time nature calls. An even greater restriction is that she’s denied the security clearance that would give her access to the information she needs to make accurate calculations.

And what are those calculations? Director Melfi and co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder do a good job of explaining the mathematical problems that must be solved in order to send a human being into space and bring him back without burning up when his capsule re-enters the atmosphere. They also do a good job of depicting the political atmosphere that makes the space race so crucial to Americans’ sense of security.

It’s only in psychological terms that the film falls short. In its eagerness to turn this true story into an uplifting experience, it often has people acting in ways that are a bit too pat.

In an early scene, a Virginia cop finds Dorothy, Mary and Katherine trying to restart their car on the side of the road. He initially treats them with the expected racism, but his attitude changes when he learns they’re working to catch up with the Russians in the space race. In a complete turnaround, he offers to give them a police escort to NASA headquarters.

Throughout the film, complicated racial and sexual attitudes prove to be similarly pliable. Despite a strong cast, a unique and fraught situation becomes predictably upbeat.

It’s interesting to contrast Hidden Figures with the new film version of August Wilson’s Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington as a black man in the 1950s who is so haunted by his experiences with racism that it taints his relationships with his own family. If only Hidden Figures had a fraction of Fences’ psychological complexity, it would have been a more convincing historical portrait.

Convincing or not, Hidden Figures remains fascinating for what it reveals about an era we thought we knew well. For Ohioans, it has the added advantage of depicting the late John Glenn as the hero and all-around good guy we came to know and love. Glen Powell’s portrayal is a belated antidote to the sour way Glenn was depicted in 1987’s The Right Stuff.

But the film’s primary strength is its revelation of the roles the real-life Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine G. Johnson and other black women played in the space race. It’s a history lesson that is long overdue.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Hidden Figures (PG) opens Friday (Jan. 6) at theaters nationwide.


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