It was in a history textbook in high school that I first came upon the name Katherine Johnson. I can vividly remember the photo of her and the caption, which noted Johnson as a trailblazing mathematician who worked for NASA during the Space Race. In the years, following, however I hadn’t come across her name again – that is, until President Barack Obama honored Johnson in 2015 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of her efforts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Now, more than half a century since Johnson calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard (the first American in space), comes an inspiring and plenty entertaining motion picture highlighting the tremendous accomplishments – and struggles – of Johnson and other African-Americans in the space program.
As the Hidden Figures opens, Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are working in the segregated, dungeon-like West Area Computers division at the Langley Research Center. With the Soviet Union making headway in the Space Race, through cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person to orbit Earth, the brilliant Johnson is recruited by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, to conduct research and calculations that will lead to John Glenn (Glen Powell)’s orbiting of the planet. Johnson is beyond qualified for the job but that hardly makes this white sausage fest of an office all too welcoming of an African-American woman.
Meanwhile, Vaughan has a tense relationship with her cold-as-ice supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) and fears she and her colleagues may become disposable to NASA, given the rise of computers. The picture also focuses on Jackson’s strides to go from the title of ‘mathematician’ to ‘engineer’ – a feat that requires an advanced degree that locally can only be obtained at an all-white institution.
The film, directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, is a genuine crowd-pleaser, packed with humor, delightful performances and – even when you know some of the outcomes – a fair share of suspense too. Spencer, as always, is a natural scene-stealer, and between this and Moonlight, 2016 has proven one hell of a year for Monae. (Moonlight star Mahershala Ali has a nice turn here too, portraying a suitor of Johnson’s.) Hidden Figures also offers a prime supporting role for Costner, nicely cast as a man whose entire life seems to revolve around the space program.
The true shining star of this film, however, is Henson, pitch-perfectly convincing and charming as can be as this amazing woman. Here is an actress who, frankly, does not always select the finest scripts, but here hits a grand slam. She’d make a fine Best Lead Actress Oscar nominee this year, crowded as that category may be.
When it comes to motion pictures about NASA, The Right Stuff remains tops but Hidden Figures really ain’t too far behind.