It’s the dawn of the space race; the U.S. and the Soviet Union are competing vigorously to send the first man into the great unknown. To get a pilot into orbit and bring him back down at just the right time — i.e., the “go, no-go point”—well, that takes a lot of math. Math is reliable. Math doesn’t lie. Thrust, weight, trajectory, speed….race? Math doesn’t take race into account. Not unless you’re counting how many feet it is to a restroom that’s not designated “whites only”.
Picture a segregated NASA: At the West annex of Langley’s computing division in Virginia, three black mathematician friends, widowed mother Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (vocalist Janelle Monáe) will make history. I’m not just talking about what you’ve seen in “The Right Stuff”; I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and probably a few unlikely math clubs composed of future African-American leaders.
Now, this was slightly before my time, but it never ceases to astonish me what was going on down here on Earth while we were up there shooting for the moon. I suppose this film’s release is timely, if for no other reason than telling a story so few have heard when they really need to hear it. Unlike “42” or “Selma”, where the headliners were constantly in the public eye, the subjects in “Hidden Figures” were virtually invisible—hence the double entendre (also think data)—so character development is the focus of this well-conceived biopic. Forefront is Henson as prodigious mathematician Katherine Goble (henceforth Johnson, husband-to-be played by the great Mahershala Ali), a human computer who’s selected by task group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) because of her unusual analytical skills.
This is at the recommendation of Vaughan (Spencer), who does the work of a supervisor but doesn’t get paid like one. It’s an argument lost on an official supervisor, oblivious ‘50s white female stereotype (Kirsten Dunst). She’s one of those “non-racist” racists, mostly guilty for being a complete buzz kill.
The math is easy for Johnson, now at the center of the action. She quietly subverts Harrison’s right hand Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) on several occasions. Stafford is not a bad guy, just one who’s ego has been challenged at a very high level. Even after the IBM is introduced and threatens their jobs, a charming John Glenn (Glen Powell), the first man to orbit the Earth, refuses to launch until Johnson verifies the computer’s data.
Her biggest challenge is hoofing it off-site to the closest “colored” restroom several times a day. Without complaint. In the rain. Until Costner’s Harrison questions her whereabouts, and Henson’s tempered performance erupts into her most compelling moment on the screen. Harrison, so wrapped up in work that he’s clueless that his most brilliant mind isn’t permitted to use the facilities in their building, subsequently puts the kibosh on the whole white/colored thing by demolishing a restroom sign with a sledgehammer. The dramatic gesture means that Costner is to be liked, if it wasn’t evident already.
And relative movie-newbie, singer/songwriter Monáe, is having quite a year, just coming off Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” with co-star Mahershala Ali. Her character, Mary Jackson, rounds out the trio of women not to be trifled with. Jackson requires a special degree to further her career, but it’s only attainable at a whites-only college, a maddening statute she would challenge in court. To paraphrase: “Just when we start to get ahead, they move the finish line.”
“Hidden Figures” is sanitized for family viewing, but rarely feels watered-down. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”), the movie keeps its focus, featuring the characters as strong, smart and resilient individuals rather than burning energy vilifying everyone else. No broad, hokey strokes here, but intriguing and uplifting in its fully formed principals.
In Theaters Christmas Day
— M. Parsons