I had no idea NASA employed a group of college-educated black mathematicians at the peak of the early sixties space race, and Hidden Figures is more than delighted to explain it. This Hollywood-ized adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer as the brightest of the lot. They’re terrific, and although Hidden Figures is as subtle as a snake on a red carpet it’s an efficient crowd pleaser, unafraid to confront the petty racism endured by these women at the moment when the civil rights movement was in full ferment.
One of the minor delights of Theodore Melfi’s direction is getting his three leads to interact with believable warmth; you can believe they would have each other’s backs. In Jim Crow-era Virginia they have no choice. Katherine (Henson), a widow with three daughters, has the expression of someone who worries about getting things right because in this white world she’ll get accused of getting it wrong. Dorothy (Spencer), the computer whiz, has to steal library books because the “colored” section doesn’t carry FORTRAN manuals. The engineer, Mary (Monae, relaxed in a way she hasn’t been as a singer-songwriter), has to petition a judge for permission to enroll in a high school to take the prerequisites she needs to advance. “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” she gets asked. “I wouldn’t have to – I’d already be one,” she responds, inevitably.
From the look of the cavernous room in which the NASA employees bite their tongues as they play with side rulers and scribble cosines on chalkboards, she might be right. But despite the condescension from the implacable white South – a tart Kristen Dunst plays Dorothy’s boss – Katherine’s abilities don’t go unnoticed by Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in his third appearance in a Kennedy-era film; he should do a one-man show). When the pressure to top the Soviet triumph of getting a man to orbit the earth forces the group to work grueling hours, the institutions of racism begin to wobble. On learning that Katherine has to walk outside to use the colored bathroom, Harrison, who chews gum with a chilling ferocity, takes a crowbar to the segregated bathroom sign.
Of such audience rousing moments is Hidden Figures made. So intelligent and vivacious are the trio that their success is assured. Even an early scene in which a state trooper pulls over their car has been wiped of menace. I didn’t believe Dorothy would scold her boss – in public! – in 1962 either. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali appears as a suitor of Katherine’s; he’s courtly but serves no dramatic purpose other than to “humanize” her. In 1962 you can be a prodigious mathematician and a black woman but not single, even if you’re a widow, or perhaps the screenwriters thought math un-sexy.
But Hidden Figures beat Star Wars: Rogue One at the box office last weekend, becoming the first film since The Girl on the Train in mid-autumn to top the chart without animation or pyrotechnics. In the same period Moonlight surpassed the $13 million mark. There are many ways to tell stories.