is the untold story of three African-American women who were instrumental in NASA’s early success: Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), who is still alive at age 98, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). We meet the them in an opening scene full of humor, setting the tone of the film and revealing their individual characteristics. It is the 1960s and sex discrimination is present throughout the film. One of the more memorable scenes is when Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician, is denied attendance at a NASA meeting purely for misogynistic reasons. Johnson is the person who, at the specific request of John Glenn (Glen Powell), did the final calculation checks prior to Glenn’s launch into space. He wanted the “smart one” to verify the IBM calculations before boarding the ship. Glenn is presented in an extremely positive light. Dorothy Vaughan is the individual who headed the “colored computer” (mathematicians crunching numbers) section but was denied the supervisory title due to her race and gender. Vaughn is instrumental in getting the IBM machine operating and is also the one who knows what the people under her supervision have to do to retain their positions at NASA in the new age of IBM technology. Mary Jackson, a member of the engineering team, plays a key role in developing the ship’s heat shield.
The film is set in the context of 1960 American society where sexism and Jim Crow laws are alive and well, and we presents see the established home lives these three brilliant women lived. Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book upon which the film is based. The screenplay was written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. This is Oscar quality. Melfi also directed the excellent 127 minute movie. It’s the small scenes that make this film work particularly well. Kevin Costner, as Al Harrison, is also excellent. Harrison is the director of the Space Task Group who focuses on completing the task at hand and not skin color or sex. Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford comes across as stereotypic. Mahershala Ali (from Moonlight) has a small role as Johnson’s suitor and eventual husband. The contrast between his two movie roles is astonishing. This film speaks to the blatant racism and sexism in 1960’s America. When you leave the cinema, you do so with an optimistic view that this country’s hurdles can be overcome. Hidden Figures is quite entertaining and one of the best movies of 2016.
Review by Steve Guttman