Hidden Figures: 'The right stuff' wasn't just white and male 

Once upon a time, say during the early years of America's space program, "computer" meant "person who does manual calculations." This was considered rather menial labor, particularly when a woman did it—and lots of women did it. Such work done by black women was barely worth mentioning, and being barely mentioned has, outrageously, been the fate of many black women who were essential to the U.S. space program. You know Alan Shepard (first American in space) and John Glenn (first American to orbit Earth). But you have probably never heard of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who were pioneers in, respectively, mathematics, computer programming and engineering at NASA, and without whom those guys wouldn't have flown.

Hidden Figures is the about-damn-time true story that puts paid to the notion that the only people who had the "right stuff" in the moonshot effort were white and male. This is no dry history lesson, but an often funny, ultimately feel-good triumph of geeks who faced even more absurd obstacles than any white boy with a pocket protector.

Taraji P. Henson is marvelous as Johnson, who does a lot of standing at blackboards chalking out calculations to invent the math needed to put a ship into orbit and return it safely to Earth. She lets us feel the gears turning in her head, and we share how transporting it is for her to escape into the numbers when so much of her day is spent merely convincing the white men around her that she can do the job.

Director Theodore Melfi wrings a lot of wry humor out of simple visual moments, as when Johnson hesitates while typing up a report for reasons that have everything to do with her agitating for validation of her work. Melfi also makes sly visual allusions to iconic moments from The Right Stuff: Johnson runs around NASA's Langley, Virginia, campus à la Jeff Goldblum in that other film, though for wildly different reasons.

click to enlarge Hidden Figures stars, from left, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
  • Hidden Figures stars, from left, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

Melfi's use of the "victory walk," which The Right Stuff director Philip Kaufman all but invented, finds the always-wonderful Octavia Spencer as Vaughan leading her "colored computers" to the plum new assignment at NASA that she made happen. Thanks in part to Kaufman's visual iconography, it's a moment clearly meant to elevate these women (and rightly so) to a realm as rarefied as the one the Mercury 7 astronauts have enjoyed. Melfi may be the first filmmaker to truly recapture the power of that scene, with characters who have earned the right to be proud of their achievements. It's a glorious moment in the film.

Then there's Jackson, whom Janelle Monáe makes the spikiest of the three as she faces a legal battle to get into NASA's engineering training program. And so Hidden Figures makes up for another omission of cinema: We've barely seen onscreen the realities of life under forced segregation—a shameful period of the nation's history that demands much more examination in pop culture. Here, through the interconnected stories of all three women, we feel the ignominious weight of separate public facilities and the pressure to not complain about it, lest one be tagged as a troublemaker. (Johnson does finally snap in a scene that is devastating.)

Some white folks do get woke, but they are not the focus of the story. They are merely listening to the voices and experiences of black women being heard—really heard—at long last. And therein lies the beauty of Hidden Figures. This shouldn't be a rarity. It's a hugely entertaining movie, but it's also important and necessary.

Hidden Figures opens nationwide in theaters Fri., Jan. 6. As of press time, the Carmike 12 could not confirm a screening.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "The big reveal"

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