As shiny and bright as the Chevy Bel Air that Octavia Spencer’s character drives — and knows how to repair — Hidden Figures is a spunky, upbeat spin on a moment of risk-taking hope for Cold War America. It’s also an eye-opening reminder of the absurdity, cruelty and pervasiveness of racial segregation a mere half-century ago, even in such rarefied precincts of higher intelligence as NASA’s Langley research center. Set during the hectic months leading to astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth, the film revolves around three key but largely unsung members of the NASA team that made his flight possible. In what can feel like a frustratingly two-dimensional history lesson, albeit one whose resonance is undeniable, it helps that they’re played by a trio of actresses with charm to spare.
The family-friendly real-life story looks set for stratospheric heights during its limited holiday run and after it goes wide Jan. 6, while the recent death of Glenn, the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven crew, should intensify interest in the feature.
Director Theodore Melfi navigates the shift from the decidedly small-scale St. Vincent to this major undertaking with assurance and energy, his behind-the-camera collaborators making dynamic contributions. Working from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder (Mean Girls 2) have fashioned a screenplay that’s somewhat less stellar than the physical production, its wholesome sass sometimes lapsing into pure sap. But the fine, spirited work of Taraji P. Henson, Spencer and Janelle Monae as irresistible rooting interests, as well as Kevin Costner’s winningly lived-in turn as the head of Langley’s Space Task Group, deepen a film that’s propelled by sitcommy beats and expository dialogue.
In this rallying cry for STEM girls everywhere, Henson plays the adorably bespectacled Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson). A math prodigy — as a prologue set in 1926 West Virginia illustrates — she’s a member of the West Computing Group at Langley, 20 African-American women who are “computers,” in the lingo of the day, segregated from the white computers in the East Group and housed in a dingy basement office (one of the many evocative sets in Wynn Thomas’s production design). From those quarters, Katherine’s friend and colleague Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) supervises the group without benefit of that official designation or the salary that would go with it, sending the “colored computers” on assignments around the research facility.
Mary Jackson (Monae), the mouthiest and most demonstrative of the three friends, is thrilled to be placed on the team working on the Mercury capsule prototype. Her supervisor (Olek Krupa) recognizes her talent and urges her to sign up for the engineer training program — no simple feat in the Jim Crow South, but a challenge that she ultimately takes on, despite the misgivings of her husband (Aldis Hodge).
Henson’s Katherine, the only person on-site with a knack for analytic geometry, joins the Space Task Group, although “joins” is something of an overstatement. She gets a chilly welcome from the group’s executive assistant (Kimberly Quinn) and a quietly belligerent one from lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). “They’ve never had a colored in here before,” personnel supervisor Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) tells her unapologetically.
The hostile setup has a borderline cartoonish quality to it, but something more nuanced unfolds between Katherine and the group’s director, Al Harrison (Costner, persuasive). His constant balancing act of preoccupation and laser focus is the film’s strongest suggestion of a complicated inner life. There are glimpses of the central trio’s home fronts, notably the widowed Katherine’s romance with a soft-spoken dreamboat of a military man (Mahershala Ali, with far less to do than in Moonlight). But all too often the screenplay is busy funneling its sense of history into self-conscious dialogue that sounds like anachronistic commentary rather than people talking. Mary’s husband says, “Freedom is never granted to the oppressed”; Dorothy observes that “any upward movement is movement for us all”; Mary’s Holocaust survivor boss declares, “We are living the impossible.”
More effective, and affecting, are the various moments of professional defiance and triumph for Katherine, Dorothy and Mary. Halfway through, Henson delivers a showstopper of a throw-down over the half-mile sprints she’s required to make several times a day to a “colored” women’s bathroom in another building. Cinematographer Mandy Walker, shooting on celluloid in keeping with the movie’s retro sensibility, pulls back to capture these dashes through the Langley campus (Atlanta’s Morehouse College provides the exteriors), the action set to a propulsively catchy song by Pharrell Williams. Henson is frantic, kinetic, unbowed in her de rigueur heels, embodying the obvious injustice but also a comic dignity — the sequences are a kind of political slapstick.
Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus has character-defining fun with the period fashions, accentuating the women’s vibrancy with dresses in rich hues and prints, a marked contrast with the white shirts, narrow black ties and gray walls of the Space Task Group where Katherine works on life-or-death calculations under mounting Space Race pressure. Her mathematical know-how impresses hero-in-the-making Glenn (Glen Powell) — and the climactic sequence, in which the boyish astronaut makes clear how much he trusts and respects her, is well orchestrated by Melfi, with a crisp emotional impact in the interactions between Costner and Henson.
The three leads also find a persuasive chemistry, however lacking in nuance the dialogue can be. Henson gives life to Katherine’s humility as well as her assertiveness; Spencer is reliably warm yet steely; and pop star Monae offers further evidence, after her memorable turn in Moonlight, that she’s a compelling screen presence.
Hidden Figures pays heartfelt tribute to remarkable women who broke color and gender barriers out of the spotlight, with no headlines proclaiming their achievements. Yet for all its energy and joy, when the inevitable images of the real-life hidden figures appear during the movie’s closing credits, it’s hard not to wish that you’d been watching a deeply delving documentary about them — or that somebody will make one soon.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Fox 2000 Pictures
Production companies: Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films, TSG Entertainment
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi; based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi
Executive producers: Jamal Daniel, Renee Witt, Ivana Lombardi, Mimi Valdes, Kevin Halloran, Margot Lee Shetterly
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Editor: Peter Teschner
Composers: Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting: Victoria Thomas
Rated PG, 127 minutes