There are few times in history, let alone in living memory, that held as much significance to the world as the Space Race. The world back then was a political powder keg, whose potential explosion meant mutually assured destruction. The threat of Russian dominance loomed large over the free world, and aside from nukes, it was the capability to launch technology into space that served as a symbol of superiority.
The film opens with three African American women traveling to the Langley Research Center for NASA, where important work is being done crunching the numbers on the math behind putting America’s first man into space. Our lead character, Katharine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson), is hired on by the Space Task Group as their “computer,” to double-check all of the team’s calculations. Her arrival is unexpected and unwelcome, with her co-workers staring at her for uncomfortable periods of time, and giving her a coffee pot labeled “coloreds.”
The film also follows two others who pioneered the advancement of women and African Americans alike in the sciences: Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer), who helps to spearhead NASA’s work with IBM machines, and Mary Jackson (played by singer/songwriter Janelle Monae), the first African American woman in NASA’s engineering department.
The film also stars talent such as Kevin Costner, playing Katharine’s boss and director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison. Longtime star of The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons, makes an appearance as well as Paul Stafford, lead mathematician at the STG, and a constant reminder of the systemic resistance to the upward mobility of minorities in NASA at the time.
The film isn’t a technical film covering the complexities of the mathematics behind space travel. Indeed, at one point the filmmakers had Parsons’s character describe a plot-important problem to his team in such a dumbed-down manner that it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than speaking directly to the audience. The setting is merely dressing to serve as a reminder that one of our society’s greatest achievements wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the efforts of those it tried to disenfranchise.
In fact, in a way, these women have been successfully disenfranchised. How many could say they were aware of Katharine Gobel and her work in the field of spaceflight before the trailer for this film was released? Of the dozens of African American women (and women in general), working tedious hours performing the raw bulk of the calculations without comparative pay and credit? The film uncovers the contributions of these women, and hopefully the statement it makes showing their success can be adopted moving forward, so that we as a society can prevent the marginalization of other groups deemed to be unwanted. Between 1972 and 2012, only 66 African American women received a PhD in physics. How many future Katharine Gobels or Mary Jacksons are out there, waiting to buck the norms and pave new roads? Maybe films like Hidden Figures can help us find them.
Aside from the political aspects, the story is rather straightforward, but competently told. It’s a feel-good, root-for-the-underdog story where the audience can feel better knowing that our leads contributed to actual, tangible advancement in our society.
Every actor here is putting their best foot forward. Jim Parsons was a completely different person from his Sheldon Cooper persona. Taraji P. Henson showcases a range of emotions almost as if she were experiencing firsthand the racism of the 60s and the results of her triumphs. Octavia Spencer is her usual, fantastic self. Janelle Monae breathes fierce independence into her character, but allows a modicum of vulnerability to seep in at times. Kevin Costner plays himself.
Hidden Figures is this season’s hidden gem. There, I’ve made my obligatory pun for this review. Now, go watch this film. Seriously.
Final score: 9/10