The space race made NASA a household name, and America became a powerhouse by winning the space race in 1969 when they put the first human on the moon. It’s the centerpiece to modern science, and one of the greatest achievements we always point to as a cornerstone to the gateway to the future. We all know Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, we all know the conspiracy–just kidding–the fact that the moon landing happened. But what a lot of people didn’t know, me included, was that behind those starch white shirts and coke bottle, horn-rimmed glasses, were a group of black women who were a big part of what made that all possible.
“Hidden Figures” tells the much needed story of 3 of them–Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and how their brilliant minds helped the process that led to the Apollo landing. That landing isn’t the focus of the film, though, its climax is set to sending the first American–John Glenn (Glen Powell)–into orbit. The Soviets had already achieved this, and in the beginning of the film, this is not well-received news by NASA. Especially not to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group. This puts pressure on them to make space travel happen, or else NASA could be possibly shut down due to its large cost.
Katherine is known as a “computer”, someone who can do equations and complex math on a whim. She is called upon to help the Task Group, since no one in the room knows how to do a specific kind of geometry. She works under Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who reports directly to Harrison. Of course, at this time, seeing a “colored” person, is a bit off-putting to the all-white group. But, as Harrison says, NASA only knows one color–and it isn’t white or black. It’s basically…math. So he accepts her, but not her lengthy bathroom breaks which becomes a bit of a plot point since the “colored” bathrooms are across the campus in another building, taking her away from her desk for nearly an hour each time she has to go.
Dorothy meanwhile is assigned as a supervisor–but not given the title–to the rest of the black women who work at NASA, the West Area Computers division. Mary Jackson also works there, but wants to be an engineer. At the time, there were no “colored” engineers. So, Jackson and Dorothy have to deal with their respective drawbacks. Even though they work for a highly esteemed organization, they are still segregated and kept down from what they want to be and achieve.
Katherine’s role becomes more prominent as her equations and solutions impress Harrison more and more, and it soon lands her right in the control room of NASA, preparing to set the coordinates of John Glenn’s first flight into outer space. A prior launch proves ineffective, with astronaut Gus Grissom piloting, due to failed numbers provided by an IBM (an actual computer as we know it). The IBM isn’t programmed correctly because it’s new and not exactly understood by the people who are working on it. However, Dorothy learns its “language”, and it becomes apparent that her desired position of Supervisor becomes more imminent. Mary is able to convince a judge to allow her night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain a certification to become an engineer.
Throughout this, with some dramatic moments and even some light humor, is a thoroughly entertaining educational film. It takes a few liberties with the actual history–but since many people don’t even know these three women existed, I’d say if anything it encourages you to find out more about them. You’ll find that some of the dramatic exaggerations may not have ever happened, but the effect they provide for the movie is pertinent and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s never used to push an agenda, or create a manipulative narrative. The film is very classy and reserved, allowing these characters to blossom in front of us naturally, well played by the actresses–especially Spencer.
There’s also a bit of romance to add a nice touch. Mahershala Ali plays Jim Johnson, who meets Katherine and the two fall in love. He’s military, and a bit dismissive at first of her role at NASA. But she warms to him, and the two develop a sweet relationship. Mary Jackson’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) is another nice addition, a little more aggressive as a civil rights activist. Then there’s Kirsten Dunst who plays probably the most overtly stereotypical “racist” character of Vivian Mitchell, supervisor to the West Area Computers. However, her character also has more to it than just being “the white lady racist”.
It’s an important history lesson that provides enough information to want to know more, and gives us a fully entertaining film from start to finish. You can’t ask for much more when it comes to historical dramas. And it’s nice to know that NASA integrated their best brains so that we could literally…touch the stars.