Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” is swift and buoyant, hitting just the right note. This true story that focuses on the unsung heroines of NASA’s space race during the 1960’s is entertaining joyous and disarming. The film provides repartee and quick wit while giving us a good dose of American history that was not taught in schools.
It is 1957, just after the Sputnik I. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) of NASA is desperate to beat the USSR into outer space, needing more brainpower to compute highly complex geometric formulas.
Enter Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a math genius and the first black woman hired to work for Harrison. From the start, Goble faces humiliating discrimination. Head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) is curt, hissing and dismissive. The men treat her as an alien and refuse coffee from the office machine once she takes a cup. To top it off, she is forced to use an off-site bathroom, almost three fourths of a mile away, labeled “Colored Only”.
Harrison is embarrassed and horrified and promptly takes down the sign. While the disgust of racism is confronted very honestly, the tone of the film is one of posititivity and triumph. Racism is shown for what it is: an ugly and toxic learned behavior that is absurd. The emphasis is rather on the determination of Goble, and the wonderfully unassuming qualities she shares with her black mathematician colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).
Goble, Vaughn and Jackson are the only ones who truly know how to handle numbers and themselves with verve and grace. “Moonlight” actor Mahershala Ali appears as Goble’s fiance who comes to see her as a valuable employee of NASA.
Katherine Goble bears the high distinction of being deeply respected by astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who refuses to go in his capsule until she checks the computer’s calculations. Goble was both more thorough and more human.
“Hidden Figures” is nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer. From the first frame to the last, this is a fun, informative and lively film that makes us realize that there is much more to history than white men in skinny black ties.
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