Space Heroes: "Hidden Figures" a necessary, warmly felt crowd-pleaser

Hidden Figures (2016)
127 min., rated PG.

When a film based on true events is released during awards season, there is the cynical notion that it will be the cinematic equivalent of eating broccoli. To be sure, “Hidden Figures” has a Disneyfied, feel-good stamp all over it and takes dramatic license like any film does, but one would have to be dead inside to not respond to it positively as a stirring celebration. Set during oppressive times when change hadn’t yet begun, this overlooked history lesson about three unheralded African-American women who deserved their due for their work in space travel is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. Such a story shouldn't have dragged its feet to be told to the world in 2016, but it's better late than never. 

Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes on the ground and behind the scenes at NASA during 1961 in Hampton, Virginia, as the Russians were ahead of the curve in space exploration. A widowed mother of three with a full-time job, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a mathematician, calculating the astronauts’ launch windows. She is assigned to the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and dominated by white men (save for Harrison’s white female assistant), and would have to hike half a mile away to the racially segregated West Computing building to use the “colored ladies room” and use a different coffee pot. There was also no protocol for women to attend briefings, which would seem important for Katherine to sit in on since the data changes every day and makes all of her work moot. Her two other colleagues were just as crucial. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a “computer,” having the responsibilities of a computing department supervisor without the proper title or pay raise. While raising a family, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an engineer who would later receive permission from a judge to attend night classes to expand her knowledge. Their efforts would lead to astronaut John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon Katherine’s exact calculations, and this would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.

Director Theodore Melfi (2014’s “St. Vincent”), who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, keeps a light, accessible touch for this uplifting story, but “Hidden Figures” is really driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud black women are far from just sassy types; they are fierce and good at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monáe are all spark plugs, full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination. Henson is ostensibly the lead, and very good, but the lesser-known Monáe is so enormously charismatic and confident in front of the camera that if she continues her career in acting after this and “Moonlight,” lead roles should await her after this breakthrough. Mahershala Ali (2016’s “Moonlight”) is exceedingly charming as Colonel Jim Johnson, Katherine’s military suitor who would eventually become her husband; getting a man is just part of the packaged deal. In slightly antagonistic roles, Jim Parsons, as main Space Task Group engineer Paul Stafford, and Kirsten Dunst, as the stringent, no-nonsense Vivian Michael, aren’t quite hemmed in as caricatures but prove that mere condescension counted as racism; fortunately, the actors receive key beats of mutual respect with Katherine and Dorothy, respectively. Lastly, Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her have a voice.

“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s husband 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 black female experience, “Hidden Figures” isn’t so much about the uncertainty of the outcome, which is history, but how Katherine, Dorothy and Mary get there. Is this Hollywood treatment glossy and sanitized? Maybe, but that hardly makes a dent in the film’s robustly satisfying entertainment value, and if a story worth telling must be told in crowd-pleasing fashion, then so be it. This is a winner.

Grade: B +