Hidden Figures is about three smart African-American women making a huge difference in a white man’s world. It’s 1961 Virginia, and they work for NASA. The mathematics needed to send an astronaut into outer space do not yet exist, and were it not for the efforts of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who knows how long it would’ve taken to figure it out.
Their obstacles are not just the difficulty of the task, mind you, but also the double whammy of racial segregation in a male-dominated workplace. Katherine is assigned to the space task group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), a no-nonsense, bottom-line boss who has little patience for anything other than rapid success. Not helping is Katherine’s immediate superior, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who stubbornly redacts information she needs and does little to help her along.
Dorothy and Mary don’t have it any easier. Dorothy does the work of a supervisor without the title or pay grade that comes with it, and her boss Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) isn’t exactly fighting on her behalf. Frustrated and determined, Dorothy learns the new IBM computing system on her own in the hope of making herself indispensable. As for Mary, she wants to become an engineer at a time when no women – let alone black women – are engineers. She, too, breaks barriers in order to accomplish her goal.
Underlying all the innovation and fortitude is the reality that these women were not allowed to use the same bathroom or drink from the same coffee pot as their co-workers. Based on a true story, the script by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (who also directs) doesn’t cast white people as horrid oppressors so much as the products of social norms. In most cases they’re unknowingly racist because that’s what “normal” is in Virginia at this time. (A note about the setting: the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, from Loving, is happening concurrently just a few miles away).
In many ways, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary understand this. Spencer and Monae are superb, leaving no doubt their characters are more than capable of doing the so-called “men’s work.” The real highlight among the performances, however, is Henson, who shows both frailty and strength as Katherine is put through the rigor of the job. Katherine also has the most personal story, as a single mother of three daughters who’s hesitant to embrace a new romance (Mahershala Ali).
Watching Hidden Figures, it becomes obvious these are the types of women little girls should be looking up to, not the ones we see in fairy tales. Consider: The live-actionCinderella (2015) made $201 million at the domestic box office, with no doubt a good chunk of that coming from little girls eager to see Prince Charming rescue the heroine. But Cinderella does nothing to help herself, and were it not for the mercy/love of the prince and a fairy godmother, she’d still be scrubbing toilets for her awful stepsisters.
In contrast, the heroines of Hidden Figures are: 1) based on real people; 2) capable of overcoming great personal and professional adversity; 3) exceptionally intelligent in their own right; and 4) impressively determined to make a difference in the world. Parents, I beg of you: Recognize how much more relevant, important and remarkable the women of Hidden Figures are, and share this story with your children rather than unrealistic fairy tales that will give them a false notion that the world will magically be kind to them. We both know it won’t be.
If you’re averse to movies in which you’re reminded how pigheaded white people were 50-plus years ago, you should know this is one of those movies. But it also handles new subject matter – that of these three inspiring women – in a compelling way that gets us to care for, root for, and like them. Hidden Figures, though it treads in familiar territory, therefore feels essential and important, and like its protagonists, deserves your attention.
Hidden Figures (3) • Directed by Theodore Melfi • Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe • Rated PG • 127 min. • At Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas