Before computers were made of circuits and vacuum tubes and transistors, they were made of flesh and bone and neurons. The term “computer” used to refer to someone who performed calculations, and NASA had a lot of them. Many of them were women, and many of them were black. The white men invented the math needed to get rockets into and out of space, and the black women did the grunt work of plugging away at the numbers. Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African-American women who were critical to the success of the space program, and who accomplished extraordinary things in spite of the racism and sexism that surrounded them in 1960s Virginia:
- Katherine Goble-Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a mathematical genius who could out-compute just about anyone on the planet, regardless of their race or gender. She was the first black woman allowed in the elite group of people responsible for figuring out rocket trajectories, and she quickly rose from just performing calculations and double-checking other people’s work to tackling the hardest problems that needed to be solved. Not the least of which was finding a bathroom that she was allowed to use.
- Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) was a computer who also had the informal responsibility (without the title or the extra pay) of supervising the other black female computers. She knew their strengths and helped ensure they went to the areas where their abilities would be put to greatest use. And when NASA started looking to IBM machines for performing calculations, she made sure that she and her colleagues were among the first at NASA to know how to program them.
- Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was an engineering wizard who may have had the respect of white male colleagues like Karl Zielinski (one of many European Jews who fled to America to escape Nazi persecution), but whose sex and color prevented her from getting the educational credentials needed for her to be considered one of their peers. So took the matter to the courts.
Although most of the time is devoted to their work at NASA, we still get a good look at their everyday lives. This is especially true of Katherine Goble, a single mother being courted by Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), and much of what we see of the other women outside of NASA seems to be focused on getting the two of them together.
Katherine’s work also seemed to get about as much attention as the other two combined, with Mary’s storyline in particular feeling a little under-represented. But with a runtime of a little over two hours, it may well be the case that some of Mary’s content ended up on the cutting room floor. That’s unfortunate, particularly when it seems like an early scene that portrayed Katherine as a child prodigy could’ve been left out to allow for more time with the other two, but it ultimately doesn’t hurt the film much.
Beyond the three excellent leads, only Kevin Costner (in the role of Al Harrison, who is apparently a composite based on a few different people) warrants additional comment for his performance, although that’s largely because his character was the most significant to the story. The film has other recognizable faces, like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, but there’s really nothing too noteworthy about their performances.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures is inspirational, educational, funny, and entertaining in just about every other way. It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours of your time.