“Hidden Figures,” a profile of three female African American mathematicians who played significant roles in the U.S. space program in its early days, may have an overly sunny portrayal of progress. But it also has an irresistible story and a trio of winning heroines.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book (Allison Schroeder cowrote the screenplay), the drama transpires in the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union has been surpassing the United States in the space race.
To turn things around, NASA needs brilliant minds, including those that belong to black women like Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
The three are employed as human “computers” (crackerjack number crunchers) at NASA’s Langley research center, in Virginia.
Along with their triumph, the film depicts the difficulties they face when navigating the segregated environment and racist and sexist attitudes.
Bespectacled, brilliant Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), the primary protagonist, specializes in analytic geometry. Assigned to the flight-research team working on the Mercury projects, she proves instrumental to flights that include Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s history-making missions. Still, colleagues treat her shabbily.
Capable, generous Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) runs the computing pool, but, though she performs the work of a supervisor, she is denied the title and the salary. Later, she learns how to program the agency’s new electronic computer and encourages other women to do likewise.
Feisty, determined Mary (Janelle Monae) wants to become an engineer but the local college offering the required classes doesn’t accept black students. She successfully fights the injustice.
Character portraiture isn’t the strength of this movie; which presents the heroines broadly and sweetens their predicaments.
Instead of an intimate conversation in which the friends talk shop or gossip about life at NASA, we get a silly scene of them dancing together. All are flawless beyond credibility.
Katherine’s 40-minute round trips to the far-away “colored ladies room” are rendered cartoonishly in passages where she dashes across the campus in high heels, accompanied by a Pharrell Williams song called “Runnin’.”
When her forward-thinking boss (Kevin Costner), a fabricated character, learns of the indignity, he smashes the “colored” rest-room sign with a crowbar. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he exclaims. If only change truly happened like this.
But like the recent “Queen of Katwe” or 2014’s gay-activists-meet-striking-miners bio-dramedy “Pride,” the film’s immensely agreeable real-life story has so much joy and energy, we’re willing to go the predictable distance.
The movie also captures the excitement of early space exploration and the building civil-rights movement.
Henson is a dynamic leading presence; she and costars Spencer and Monae give appealing performances in conventionally written roles.
In supporting parts, Kirsten Dunst plays a condescending personnel manager, Glen Powell plays John Glenn, and Mahershala Ali (Monae’s “Moonlight” costar) portrays a suitor whose marriage proposal to Katherine seals the movie’s status as embraceable goo.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner
Written by Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Running time 2 hours, 7 minutes
Note: The movie opens Sunday at the Metreon.