1. Life & Culture

Review: 'Hidden Figures' is an entertaining and important history lesson

Janelle Monae, left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer play lively mathematicians working for NASA.
Janelle Monae, left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer play lively mathematicians working for NASA.
Published Jan. 3, 2017

Hidden Figures is a true story draped in red, white, blue and black, too long an ignored footnote to American history.

Invaluable contributions by African-American women to NASA's earliest missions were finally spotlighted in Margot Lee Shetterly's book a few months ahead of Theodore Melfi's movie. The title they share carries double meaning: a scientific mystery solved by marginalized people. Hidden Figures is rise-up storytelling at its glossiest, an easy, entertaining history lesson to swallow.

In 1962, the United States was losing ground in a space race with the Soviet Union while civil rights stalled at home. NASA's finest minds couldn't figure the trajectory to launch a manned spacecraft into orbit. The solution was right in the agency's Langley, Va., basement where dozens of black women, skilled mathematicians, pored over data in a segregated zone.

The book and movie focus on three. Katherine Johnson is a mild-mannered savant played by Taraji P. Henson; dutiful Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) figures out a new technology called computers; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is whip smart and assertive. They're a personable trio to follow, portrayed lively by three actors invested in getting their stories right and better known.

Before these women's potential can be fulfilled, an atmosphere of racial prejudice in an all-white, mostly male hierarchy must be faced head-on. Even a woman in charge (Kirsten Dunst) has no sympathy for Katherine's dilemma, being the smartest person in the room she can't enter. That is, until a foresighted supervisor (Kevin Costner) orders color barriers broken.

Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder stack the emotional deck, of course, although never preachy or in a fashion feeling overcooked. Racism is expressed quietly in these offices; a coffee pot labeled for "coloreds," a restroom an uncomfortable distance away. The antagonist of sorts is played harmlessly by Jim Parsons, a needler more than an actual villain.

Hidden Figures resolves those issues with enough time to spare for Katherine's mathematical breakthrough to an unplanned posthumous tribute. Her celestial navigation formula enables the late John Glenn to be America's first astronaut in outer space. That Friendship 7 mission is recreated with Glen Powell as Glenn, after he has already spoken up to prejudiced colleagues, an early measure of the man. Hidden Figures not only brings new American history to light but underscores the recent loss of a bona fide hero.

The story's three paths to empowerment get messy for Melfi sometimes. Each woman deserves a measure of characterization beyond math whiz, so it's a romantic interest (Mahershala Ali) for Katherine, the IBM challenge for Dorothy and motherhood for Mary, all steering Hidden Figures into conventional feel-good tactics. It's an appealing package, but a package nonetheless.

Still, Hidden Figures deserves consideration as another great black hope of putting that #OscarsSoWhite problem to rest. More importantly, it's a lesson that African-American culture offers more inspiring stories than Hollywood has chosen to tell.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.


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