Because of its ambition to beat Russia in the race to the moon, NASA is forced to accept mathematicians, no matter what their skin color is. Although the film is largely anchored on Katherine since her story is the most compelling, the other two women also get their time to take center stage. These are Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, the singer, who’s also in another Oscar-nominated film, “Moonlight”) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, who won the Oscar best supporting actress award for “The Help” and is now nominated again in the same category).
The first time we meet all three of them, they’re sitting in a car that conked out on their way to NASA when they’re accosted by a white cop. This scene quickly establishes their different personalities. Jackson is the feisty, smart ass who delivers wisecracks. Vaughan is good at car mechanics and has a no-nonsense attitude. Goble is confident of her gifts and knows how to hold herself in check even when other people try to underestimate her.
When NASA Space Task Group’s top honcho, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), requests for an exceptional mathematician to help the calculations in their Friendship 7 rocket project for astronaut John Glenn, Katherine Goble is sent to him. That scene where Katherine enters their office which is full of white male mathematicians is truly unnerving. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Harrison’s petulant assistant, is expectedly hostile to Katherine, but in the course of the movie, she wins them all eventually.
Jackson has all the qualifications of a qualified engineer, but she doesn’t have the official degree because she’s not accepted in an all-white school. With her never say die attitude, she decides to take her case to court and that scene where she personally convinces the judge to allow her, a black girl, to study in a school for whites, where the students are mostly males, is a real gem.
The film is expertly directed by Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Although it’s about three women fighting racism and sexism, he presents it with a light and tender touch that makes the film more affecting. This is seen in the way the love story of Katherine with a soldier, Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, who’s also in “Moonlight”), is developed. She’s a widow with three daughters and her relationship with Johnson initially starts on the wrong foot, but it later blooms and blossoms with the help of her own three daughters. This is also seen in Mary’s very supportive husband (Aldis Hodge) who doesn’t mind looking after their children while she’s pursuing higher education at night.
A key scene whose build up is very well executed starts with Katherine repeatedly tapping her foot, followed by her mile-long dash to go to the only toilet available for colored women since there is no toilet she can use in their own building. These sequences showing her rain-or-shine trek to the far away toilet culminate in a beautifully acted meoment where Katherine finally explodes when Harrison reprimands her for being gone for such a long time and she explains her situation. Henson delivers a tour-de-force performance in this scene and you want to applaud when Harrison then gets a hammer to demolish the toilet sign intended only for colored women.
“Hidden Figures” is an inspirational feel-good story that is based on real people and real life events, not about superheroes with comic book origins, and we’re glad that it’s doing very well at the U.S. box office. Too bad that here, it is in shown in local theatres without much publicity or promotion, so when we saw it in a local mall theatre, there were only a few of us watching this must see film which even offers some good songs from Pharrell Williams. It is well acted by the three leads, who get great support from Kevin Costner who’s a perfect fit here in his role as the supportive mentor.
In the end, when the pictures of the real life ladies whose untold stories are portrayed in the movie are shown, you want to give them a big round of applause for their accomplishments. These unsung heroes who faced great obstacles to prove that they are equals of their white NASA co-workers really earn our respect for their achievements gained despite the color of their skin.