Film & Television

‘Hidden Figures’ Celebrates Unsung Heroes of the Space Race

Taraji P. Henson, who is marvelous as Katherine, is best-known as the drug-dealing, record-label mogul on Fox TV’s Empire. Audience’s familiar with her television work will be astounded by the transformation; the roles couldn’t be more polarized. (Imagine Alexis Carrington going back to school for a PhD in non-Euclidean geometry.) Henson embodies the nerd heroine that every little girl who’s good at math should get a chance to see. How wonderful it would be to add Hidden Figures to middle school curricula.

Octavia Spencer (2012 Academy Award-winner for The Help) is spot-on as Dorothy. She works within the system and around it when necessary, but never misses a chance to let the system know that she knows exactly what’s going on. When her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) assures her “You know, I don’t have anything against y’all,” Dorothy doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m sure you think that’s true.” Spencer has already been nominated for Golden Globe and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards for this performance. Another Oscar nomination is likely.

Singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe more than holds her own alongside the more experienced Henson and Spencer. As Mary, she’s younger and a bit more glamorous. She’s somehow simultaneously more hopeful and more outraged. She can also see humor in the system as unlikely as that sounds. Early on in the film, the three women are trying to fix their broken down car when a police officer approaches. Once he’s convinced that they are actually NASA employees, he escorts them to work. Mary jokes as she speeds behind him, “Three Negro women chasing down a white police officer in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle.”

One of the things Hidden Figures does so well is point out the seemingly countless ways in which segregation manifested itself, without taking time away from the individual stories. Most of the white workers wouldn’t consider themselves prejudiced, but they don’t rock the boat either. Until Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, really solid as the head of the Space Task Group) realizes why his best mathematician is missing from her desk so often. He then takes a crowbar to the restroom signs, demanding that from now on “At NASA, we all pee the same color.” John Glenn (Glen Powell) also proves pragmatic, demanding that “the really smart girl” re-check his re-entry figures. He trusts Katherine more than he trusts IBM.

Hidden Figures is based on true events, but there are some fairly obvious conventions added. Did these three remarkable women actually carpool to work together? Was a Holocaust survivor really Mary’s inspiration to get her engineering degree? Whether these elements are fact or fiction, they make the movie satisfying. But, perhaps most satisfying of all is a coda that includes photos of the real Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, along with a list of their very real accomplishments and honors. Only Katherine Johnson is still alive today. She’s 98 years old, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.

Most of this country’s history — like most Hollywood movies — has been written by white men. Hidden Figures is a great reminder of the unsung heroes who contributed to all our accomplishments. And, happily for us, it’s also a really great movie.

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