'Hidden Figures' elevates NASA's human computers to a realm as rarefied as the astronauts'

It's a feel-good triumph, and it's about damn time.

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé in "Hidden Figures"
Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé in "Hidden Figures" Photo courtesy Fox Movies
opens Thursday, Jan. 5
5 stars (out of 5)

Once upon a time, such as during the early years of America’s space program, “computer” meant “person who does manual calculations.” This was considered rather menial labor, particular when a woman did it … and lots of women did it. Though these women were as smart and as educated as the men they worked alongside, and often did much the same work as the men, they were paid less, in money and in respect, than the men (who held titles such as “engineer”). And anything done by black women was, obviously, barely worth mentioning. And “barely mentioned at all” has, outrageously, been the fate of so many black women who were essential to the U.S. space program. You know about Alan Shepard (first American in space) and John Glenn (first American to orbit Earth). 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 the it’s-about-damn-time true story that fixes that wrong and puts paid to 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 its like to come along. Now that it’s here, Hidden Figures is cause for celebration.

Empires Taraji P. Henson is completely marvelous as Johnson, who does a lot of standing at blackboards chalking out calculations and making that genuinely thrilling, and not only because – geeky squee – she is trying to invent the math needed to put a ship into orbit and return it safely to the Earth’s surface. She lets us feel the gears turning in her head as she works, and we share how transporting it is for her to escape into the numbers when so much of her day is spent merely convincing all the white men around her that she can do the job. 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: Johnson does a lot of running around NASA’s Langley, Virginia, campus à la Jeff Goldblum in that other film, though for wildly different reasons.

Melfi’s 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 clearly meant to elevate these women (and rightly so) to a realm as rarefied as the one the Mercury 7 astronauts have enjoyed, thanks in part to Kaufman’s visual iconography. Melfi may be the first filmmaker to have truly recaptured the power of that, with characters who have actually earned the right to be proud of their achievements. It’s a glorious moment in the film.

And then there’s Jackson, whom Janelle Monáe make the spikiest of the three as she faces an actual legal battle to get into NASA’s engineering training program. And so Hidden Figures makes up for another omission of cinema: We’ve barely seen onscreen the realities of life under segregation, a shameful period of the nation’s history that demands much more examination in pop culture. 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 get woke, 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. This shouldn’t be a rarity! This is a hugely entertaining movie, but it’s also an important one and a necessary one.

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