We first meet the three African-American ladies at the center of Hidden Figures as their car has broken down on their way to work. A Caucasian policeman stops by asking what the problem is. Because the time is 1961, we think the policeman will display the then common racist attitudes and not treat them kindly. However, once they show proof of their identification as employees at NASA, the policeman decides to escort them to work after one of the ladies gets the car fixed.
The scene provides the key to the film’s underlying theme, which is about how racial and gender equality simply makes things uniformly efficient. Many others working at NASA throughout the film are slower to pick up on that message even when they all share the common national goal to get a man into space orbit. However, once the ladies and the policeman know they share the common goal, they do the most logical step which is to get to the destination.
The movie is based on the true story of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan leads the team (in duties, if not in title) and the three work as part of a team of black female mathematicians performing computations by hand in the West Area Computers division (where their department sign reads “Colored Computers”). When their overseeing supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs that the Space Task Group need a new computer, Johnson gets scouted in the group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Russia has already launched its artificial satellite, spiking worries that they will have the ability to spy on the US in the space race.
Johnson, whom we see has a naturally gifted mathematical mind from childhood, is the first black person to join the group and is not treated respectfully at first. One of the engineers assumes she is a custodian and piles a trash can on her work items on her first day. When she tries to drink coffee from a common coffee pot, the others place a separate smaller coffee pot labeled for “Coloreds” with no coffee in it. However, as the team will soon realize, such racist attitudes, especially embodied by the head engineer, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), impede on her work and thus everyone else’s. When Harrison, who pushes everyone to get the first astronaut into orbit, sees the impediment after an impassioned breakdown from Johnson, the film gets one of its more satisfying moments smashing down the racist attitudes.
The story finds time for all three women in their personal and professional lives. Each of them faces uphill battles against the segregation attitudes in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement. Vaughan is not officially given the title of supervisor by Mitchell despite all the responsibilities she performs in such a role. She is also not given access to the resources in the library that she needs to learn programming in FORTRAN. Jackson strives to be a female engineer at NASA but must attend classes at a school that has never accepted black people.
In all three characters’ stories, Henson and Spencer portray their characters strongly as usual and singer Monáe, along with the recent Moonlight, shows herself as a solid actress playing spunky characters. Costner is a good choice for Harrison, giving echoes of a similar role from Thirteen Days as an adviser to John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reliable Mahershala Ali provides nice support as a military colonel who romances Henson’s Johnson, who has been widowed with three children.
The director, Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, knows the moments of change that he must hit and is able to do so with some humor. Some of it is a bit too on-the-nose as when Johnson looks at Stafford’s calculations scratched with permanent markings (refusing to have them checked) under the light, encouraging others to also “see the light.” However, it is mostly effective, as in one of the best scenes that I will avoid describing too much about. The scene is set up with shots framed to show Spencer’s Vaughan and Dunst’s Mitchell looking at the same mirror as if each is finally looking at the other as her own reflection. The way it pays off plays to Spencer’s unique specialization in characters who can size other people up.
Of course, the movie, as all those “based on a true story” are, plays fast and loose with some facts. Most of the Caucasian characters are composites and the discriminatory attitudes Johnson faced in her working team were not as strong as the movie delineates. However, many of the facts in the movie did happen, as when the astronaut, John Glenn (portrayed positively by Glen Powell), called on Johnson to verify the trajectory calculations before the launch. As a general rule, I see good movies “based on a true story” as the emotional key for me to do the research on the facts (for a helpful analysis comparing the facts and the movie, look at this link).
Emotions are what allow for the larger theme to be conveyed more effectively. In its broad strokes, the movie gives a solid dimension as to why equality is considered progress. Just as the computing machines we use depend on various moving parts working together, it is progress in us doing our jobs better.
USA. 2016. Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Theodore Melfi. Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Biscoe, and Donna Biscoe. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.