The sky was no limit for the American dream of the 1960s, that heady era of transformation, inspiration, and suddenly possible impossibles — of shooting, literally, for the moon. But the dream wasn’t distributed equally, of course: As black women in the still-segregated South, ladies like Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) couldn’t sit in the front of a bus, take a seat at a soda fountain, or even check out a book not approved for the scant “colored” section of the local library. One thing they could do, in their own heavily circumscribed way, was work at NASA — if not in the lead guard of launch metrics or mission control, at least in the bowels of the sprawling Langley, Virginia campus where humans still handled the daily computing work that hadn’t yet been preempted by machines.
Hidden Figures is dedicated to celebrating those overlooked heroines, particularly Katherine: A young widow with three daughters at home, she has analytical gifts exceptional enough to bring her all the way to the room where it happens — the exclusive (and blindingly white) boys’ club responsible for the actual rocket science of the Mercury and Apollo missions. At the same time, Spencer’s Dorothy struggles to earn the title and salary she knows her work merits, and Monáe’s Mary fights for the right to take the engineering courses in a state whose Jim Crow laws forbid her mere presence on campus. Both actresses bring compelling humanity to underwritten roles, especially Monáe; in only her second major screen role after Moonlight, she fairly glows with life force.
RELATED: Inside the making of Hidden Figures
It falls on Henson, though, to carry the narrative: Demure in cat’s-eye glasses and knee-hobbling pencil skirts, her Katherine is miles away from the wild, chinchilla-clad id of Empire’s Cookie; instead, she’s a stealth warrior, facing down every fresh trial and slight with steely, speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-protractor resolve. (Among her peers, though few would deign to call themselves that, are the expected enemies — Jim Parsons’ persnickety fellow mathematician, Kirsten Dunst’s snide supervisor — and a few less expected allies, including Kevin Costner as the program’s gruff but kind director and Glen Powell’s sweet, courtly John Glenn.)
Charged with streamlining Figures’ knotty real-life histories, director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) tends to paint too much in the broad, amiable strokes of a triumph-of-the-week TV movie. But even his earthbound execution can’t dim the sheer magnetic pull of an extraordinary story. B+