Putting man on the moon is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but the women who played a part in getting him there have gone unsung for too long – and the fact that some of them were African-American is the surprise draw of this inspiring, Oscar-nominated account.
Besides having to work out the angles of re-entry, math whizzes Katherine G Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) were required to jump through hoops in any given working day at NASA throughout the 1950s and early 60s, when segregation meant they couldn’t even use the same lavatories as their white peers.
It’s a running gag here – in the most literal sense – as Katherine spends 20 minutes every morning jogging across the grounds at Langley Research Center in Virginia to use the “coloured bathroom”. Of course, while being laughable, it’s not inherently a laughing matter, but director Theodore Melfi (the film-maker behind Bill Murray vehicle St Vincent) movingly conveys the absurdity and sheer outrageousness of the situation without beating a drum.
Like the indefatigable can-do spirit that led the US space program, there is a drive and optimism about this trio of ladies that involves you more deeply in their plight. Mary Jackson goes to court for the right to attend a whites-only college and secure the qualifications needed to fulfil her ambitions (and meet her obvious potential) as an engineer.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughn swots up on innovations in mechanical computing to ensure that she, and her team of “coloured computers” (the pool of human number-crunchers where all three women start out), are not deemed expendable with the introduction of IBM machines.
In an Oscar-nominated turn, Spencer layers her performance with a world-weariness that she can only voice in sly exchanges with her uppity manager (Kirsten Dunst), while at the same time enjoying the challenge of making those machines bow to her knowledge.
Unfortunately for Dunst and Jim Parsons, who plays Katherine’s “superior”, the script is harsh in defining these (fictional) characters purely by their petty jealousies and prejudice, although with a script that uses Margot Lee Shetterley’s book as its basis – seeing events through the eyes of those who were discriminated against – any small-mindedness would be difficult to underplay.
Katherine’s boss and manager of Space Task Group, Al Harrison (a composite of three people), is more generously portrayed by Kevin Costner, but a scene that finds him sledgehammering the “coloureds only” signage above the loos smacks of Hollywood bluster. The more interesting facet of his character is the logic and pragmatism that overrides his casual acceptance of the way things are.
There’s the sense of a few more embellishments in the aw-shucks clean-cut portrayal of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), whose fate falls squarely into Katherine’s hands after Project Mercury finds him in a tight spot hovering some 200 miles above the Earth. In pure storytelling terms, however, it presses all the right buttons for a blast of exciting, upbeat entertainment.
Even if some details have been massaged to fit the template of a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, the main thrust of the story is true and all the more remarkable for that. What’s more important is that Melfi has captured all the grit and grace, as well as the brilliance, of his three female protagonists, who have been honoured very late in their lives for their contribution to the Space Race.
In recent interviews, Katherine G Johnson – now 98-years-old and still with her husband Colonel Jim Johnson (their romance detailed here, with Mahershala Ali in the role) – has said the film is true where it counts, and she has earned her right to have the last word.
“Go see Hidden Figures,” she has urged. “And take a young person. It will give them a more positive outlook on what is possible if you work hard, do your best and are prepared.”
Hidden Figures is released in cinemas on Friday 17 February