All things equal
The story of the black women behind America’s space-flight successes
Katherine Johnson, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the last century (who is still going at age 98), gets the movie her life’s story deserves with Hidden Figures, an entertaining and enlightening look at her—and her cohorts’—decades of contributions to NASA and space flight starting in the late-1950s.
At NASA in the fifties, Johnson was part of a segregated wing of mathematicians who did the work that actual computers do today. The movie depicts the humiliation she and two other historical black figures (Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) went through while solving equations that helped put men safely into space and return them to their families.
The women had to put up with a lot of racist bullshit on their way to, during and after work, and the film shows their hardships (albeit in PG fashion). For instance, as Johnson was making monumental calculations for the likes of Alan Shepard, she wasn’t allowed to use bathrooms in her building or drink from the same coffee pot as her white counterparts.
Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, the “smart one” who astronaut John Glenn personally demanded check the coordinates before his historical 1962 flight around the Earth launched. Henson is perfection in the role, depicting Johnson as the awesome nerd she is. The scene in which she takes her fellow mathematicians at NASA to task for their racist ways is a stunner. Henson gives the film and Johnson a true sense of majesty.
Octavia Spencer is great as Vaughan, who does the work of a supervisor without the title and is curious about that new IBM thing they just installed down the hall. Vaughan would become crucial to the implementation of computers at NASA, as well as being the agency’s first black supervisor.
As Jackson, NASA’s first female black aeronautical engineer, singer Janelle Monáe is so good it’s easy to forget that this is just her second movie role (she was also excellent in last year’s Moonlight).
As a composite, fictional character named Al Harrison, Kevin Costner does some of his best acting in years. He emulates America’s drive to reach space before the Russians happening while simultaneously adapting to the progressive changes of the civil rights movement.
Hidden Figures stands alongside 2016’s The Birth of a Nation and Loving as some of the most important recent films on the African-American experience. It’s also a movie you can put alongside the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 as an authentic, captivating depiction of the space race.
The film only scratches surface of what Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson accomplished and endured, but it does bring their historical significance to light.
Director Theodore Melfi’s sophomore effort after the likeable St. Vincent (2014) is a large step forward in scope and significance. He treats the subject matter respectfully, finding moments for humor while not letting up on the injustices showered upon the trio. His movie looks good, a convincing simulation of what the inner workings of NASA might’ve looked like back in the day.
Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali all contribute admirably in supporting roles. Ali plays Johnson’s second husband, Lt. Col. James Johnson, who is also still alive and living with Katherine in Hampton, Va.