Taraji P. Henson (center) plays a NASA mathematician tasked with critical calculations.
Once upon a time, during the early years of America’s space program, computer meant “person who does manual calculations.” This was considered rather menial labor, particularly when a woman did it — and lots of women did it. Though these women were as smart and educated as the men they worked alongside, and often did much the same work as the men, they were paid less, both in money and in respect. Anything done by black women was, obviously, barely worth mentioning.
You know Alan Shepard and John Glenn. But you have probably never heard of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, who were pioneers in, respectively, mathematics, computer programming and engineering at NASA, without whom those guys would never have flown.
Hidden Figures is a true story that fixes that wrong and puts to rest the notion that the only people who had “the right stuff” in the moonshot effort were white and male. This is no dry history lesson, though, but an often funny, ultimately feel-good triumph of geeks who faced even more absurd obstacles than any white boy with a pocket protector. It’s disgraceful that it has taken this long for this film to come along. Now that it’s here, Hidden Figures is cause for celebration.
Empire’s Taraji P. Henson is marvelous as Johnson, who does a lot of standing at blackboards chalking out calculations and making that genuinely thrilling, and not only because she is trying to invent the math needed to put a ship into orbit and return it safely to the Earth’s surface. Director Theodore Melfi wrings a lot of wry humor out of simple visual moments, as when Johnson hesitates while typing up a report for reasons that have everything to do with her agitating for validation of her work. Melfi also makes sly visual allusions to iconic moments from The Right Stuff: His use of the “victory walk,” which Right Stuff director Philip Kaufman all but invented, has the always wonderful Octavia Spencer as Vaughn leading her “colored computers” to the plum new assignment at NASA that she has made happen. It’s a glorious moment in the film.
And then there’s Jackson, whom Janelle Monáe makes the spikiest of the three as she faces an actual legal battle to get into NASA’s engineering training program. Here, through the interconnected stories of all three women, we feel the weight of the ignominy of separate public facilities and the pressure to not complain about it all lest one be tagged as a troublemaker. (Johnson does finally snap in a scene that is devastating.)
Some white folks do eventually get it, but they are not the focus of the story: They are merely listening to the voices and experiences of black women being heard, really heard, at long last. And therein lies the beauty of Hidden Figures.