The film “Hidden Figures” tells the story of Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo flight that finally sent a man to the moon. The story has been told and retold throughout history classes for years and is getting yet another adaptation to the big screen.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, you’re in for a treat. The film, based on a book by Margot Lee Sheerly, stars Taraji P. Henson as Johnson — a shy and unassuming, but professionally confident, mathematician whose fluency with computerized celestial navigation made her the ideal fit for NASA in the early 1960s during America’s space race against the Russians.
Henson is wonderful in the role, really capturing Johnson’s socially unassuming nature while using her expressive face to hint at the character’s resentment toward the indignities she still had to endure because of her race. This is in spite of her spectacular contributions in aiding America’s effort to send a man into space.
One of the film’s on-going montages is when Johnson has to use the bathroom while working at the predominantly white NASA facility. There are no colored bathrooms in the building, and she is forced to travel a few miles across town to use a “colored” bathroom at college a campus.
Director Theodore Melfi uses the Pharrell Williams song, “Running,” to excellent effect in each of the montages, as he links them together to create a visual that is startlingly impactful without being preachy.
Along with Henson there are two other significant figures in the film.
Octavia Spenser plays Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, both of whom were also African-American mathematicians who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its predecessor agency, NASA.
Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at NACA in 1949, while Jackson would become an aerospace engineer and make significant contributions to the space program.
Spenser and Monáe are wonderful in the film, portraying the brilliance and humanity of these historic women who were forced to overcome tremendous institutional racism even while they were demonstrably more than capable of handling the challenges of working for NASA.
If the film doesn’t quite reach greatness, it would be because of moments and characters that could have been better handled. The film contains straw men like Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who seem to exist in the film for no greater purpose than to be adversaries for Vaughan and Johnson respectively.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie you know it will contain a scene where Stafford seriously doubts that Johnson knows how to solve a complex mathematical conundrum that “their best men have already checked and couldn’t solve,” only to have Johnson figure it out on a chalkboard while onlookers gawk and the soundtrack music swells.
There are moments like this that prevent the film from truly achieving greatness, but it is still pretty great regardless because of the excellent acting of its three leads and Kevin Costner, who plays Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group.
“Hidden Figures” is, in a lot of ways, the movie we need right now. Similar to the current political climate in America, it is set at a time of great polarization and racial divide. It is a perfect example of a time when brilliant minds were able to accomplish great things together for the good of the country. It reminds us that when we share a common goal, we can all contribute to a shared cause regardless of race and political leanings.
Much like the success of Apollo 11, its strength really is in numbers.