Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African-American women who worked in professional positions at NASA in the sixties and helped the United States advance during the Space Race.
Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are three mathematicians working in the segregated West Area Computer section of Langley Research Center. The three get assigned to positions that help provide calculations to support John Glenn’s orbital flight whilst having to cope with gender and racial prejudices at Langley.
The film opens with Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, Janelle Monáe as Jackson and Octavia Spencer as Vaughan trying to fix their broken down car on the way to work when they encounter a policeman. After providing their I.D. and telling him they work for NASA, the cop who hates the Russians gives them a police escort to work resulting in a great one-liner.
The focus switches between the three women but much of the film focuses Johnson, who after being assigned to help calculate launch and recovery trajectories, immediately faces prejudice, including running half a mile each way to use a segregated bathroom, and dismissal from her colleagues.
Jackson is a mathematician who is assigned to help with the engineering side of the capsule’s re-entry. She meets the least resistance at work and is encouraged to further her career by taking courses but meets a hurdle when she finds out the only place to take them is at a segregated school and has to go to court.
Recognising that the arrival of a new IBM mainframe computer that can perform thousands of calculations per second will render herself and her colleagues obsolete, Vaughan teaches herself and her colleagues to program the computer which has so far baffled the IBM technicians.
The film balances the science and racial tensions well with neither dominating the film too much during the majority of the film, although as the launch of John Glenn gets close the technical aspects come to the fore.
To juxtapose the serious and scientific nature of the film there are some lightly comedic events. Who knew something mundane as the ink used for redacting sensitive information could be so funny?
Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons (Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory) put in solid performances in supporting roles which help flesh out the film but it’s Henson, Spencer and Monáe who carry the film. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film picks up an award or two, having already received a Golden Globe nomination for Spencer.
Whilst the scientific nature of the film may not appeal to young children, the nature of the social aspects of the film could instigate interesting discussions.
The end of the film provides an insight into how successful three of them were and the legacy they behind.
Running time: 2 hrs 7 minutes
Hidden Figures is rated PG.