Astronaut John Glenn died last month, a man who not only spent decades in the US Senate, but was also the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule. President Barack Obama noted that Glenn’s life “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.” Hidden Figures (2016) is a reminder of the earthly obstacles that needed to be removed before those lofty heights could be attained.
This overlooked history lesson about three unheralded black women who deserved their due for analytical geometry is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. These mathematical geniuses were known as ‘human computers’ for their computational abilities.
Based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes behind the scenes at NASA in 1961, as the Russians were ahead of the game in the space race.
The efforts of the three main characters would lead to John Glenn’s eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon exact calculations, and thus would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.
This film is driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud women are far from just sassy; they are fierce and excel at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson (who’s alive and kicking at age 97), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monae are spitfires. They’re full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination.
Henson plays the lead character, and she’s very good, but the lesser-known Monae is also enormously charismatic and confident on the silver screen. Mahershala Ali plays Colonel Jim Johnson, a Hallmark-grade military suitor who woos Katherine. In this film, getting a man is just a part of the package deal; not the entire package. Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her voice be heard.
“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s huband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells her, and that’s the unfortunate truth. This is just one example of historical progress, and we still have a long way to go. Warmly felt and necessary about the female experience,
Hidden Figures could have easily been a mess of sentimental mush, but the honest performances keep it on track. Robustly satisfying and entertaining, the stars of this film keep the storm brewing beneath the surface, suffering quietly until the audience practically begs for a rational hand to set all the nonsense straight.
Ironically, the release of Hidden Figures takes place just before the ushering in of a presidential regime with a less-than-lovely reputation toward minorities (women included). But as uncertain as things may look right now, this film reminds us of our capacity to overcome obstacles. If for no other reason than that, it’s the triumphant crowd-pleaser we need right now.