Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures sheds light on a little-known corner of history by outlining the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. When the story begins in 1961, NASA doesn’t yet have electronic computers, so it has to rely on people to calculate the mathematical data needed to successfully launch space missions. The open and unapologetic sexism of the time is reflected in the gender-stratified jobs: All the so-called “computers” are women, while only men get the more prestigious and better-paid jobs that involve using the numbers crunched by the women to launch rockets into space. And, since this is the Jim Crow South, the African-American computers all work in the same room, behind a door labeled “Colored Computers.”
The resistance these women have to overcome just to do their jobs provides much of the film’s drama. In one scene, the fact that Dorothy’s car stalls out on a country road on their way to work morphs from mere inconvenience to menace when the three are approached by a casually disdainful white cop. Dorothy, the de facto supervisor for the Colored Computer group, keeps trying fruitlessly to get a title and raise to go with her added responsibilities. She also has to teach herself and the others in her group how to program computers in order to save their jobs when NASA prepares to shift to electronic computers, though it means stealing a book from the public library, since there are no computer manuals in the “colored” section. To get the engineering degree that’s been denied her, Mary sues to attend a white high school that’s the only place in the area that offers the courses she needs.
The bulk of the film’s focus is on Johnson, a brilliant mathematician who makes it out of the Colored Computer ghetto, tapped to join the men in the high-status room when they need a computer to check figures aimed at sending the first American into space, only to find challenges at every turn. Half the numbers she’s supposed to double-check are blacked out, supposedly because she doesn’t have security clearance, by her supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who’s outraged by the notion that she might know more about anything than he and his men, and the run-walk she has to take to the one “colored” bathroom on campus forces her to be away from her desk for extended periods when she’s supposed to be churning out figures.
Their white supervisors display a realistic range of reactions to the women, from Stafford’s catty stiff-arming of Johnson to the casual neglect of Stafford’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who only cares about getting the best possible results, regardless of who delivers them, but is too preoccupied to notice the roadblocks Stafford keeps throwing in Johnson’s way. In a satisfying exchange inside a ladies’ restroom, Dorothy’s icily obstructionist boss, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst), says that she has “nothing against y’all,” to which Dorothy drily responds: “I know. I know you probably believe that.”
The women’s dogged refusal to cede their places on a team that keeps trying to reject them is a moving display of heroism, and a constant source of dramatic tension. Johnson gets a few opportunities to blast at the ignorance and prejudice she faces, most notably in a scene toward the end when she stands ramrod straight in a roomful of oblivious white men and speaks her truth, but the real triumph of Henson’s performance is her articulation of Johnson’s pent-up frustration in all its pained dignity. Black women simply couldn’t function in that time and place if they voiced their anger at every insult, and Henson makes clear the effort required to maintain Johnson’s self-control, from her determined trot on those long treks to the bathroom, clutching her work to her chest, to the way she pauses to tamp down her anger before speaking or tightens her lips when observing some new outrage.
Interestingly, Johnson’s story intersects dramatically with that of a far more conventional and widely lauded American hero. NASA was having trouble with its brand new electronic computers and spaceships had been exploding with distressing frequency on takeoff or landing when John Glenn was preparing to be the first American astronaut to go into orbit. Glenn asked NASA to tap Johnson to recalculate the trajectory of his reentry, saying he would trust the figures if she said they were good. He literally put his life into her hands, in a powerful illustration of the essential nature of the contributions made by “hidden figures” like Johnson—and of the fact that a nation becomes stronger when it provides equal opportunities to all its citizens.
The treatment of the women’s personal lives is far weaker. The actors who play Johnson’s young children are so wooden that Henson might as well be acting against a green screen when she appears with them. The dialogue is more baldly expository in these scenes too, like when Johnson tells her three girls that their dad is “with the angels,” so “I have to be Mommy and Daddy.” Mahershala Ali is sadly underutilized as Johnson’s suitor, whose presence in her life consists of three scenes: the one where they meet at a church barbecue and he insults her by implying that women can’t do science; the one where he apologizes and they slow dance; and the one where he proposes while her family serves as a picture-perfect backdrop.
Scenes like those give the women’s lives a sense of pat predictability and triumphal inevitability that sells their achievements short, as does the one where Katherine finally tells Harrison why she’s taking those long “breaks” during the day and he reacts by marching over to the “colored” bathroom to knock down the sign and declare all of NASA’s bathrooms color-free from that day forward. If only change came that quickly and easily.