Of all the films about the Space Race between the United States and the then-Soviet Union in the ’60s, none to my knowledge have included African American NASA employees. Granted, there’s pretty much nothing except The Right Stuff or Apollo 13 to choose from, but still. No, Apollo 19 doesn’t count. With Hidden Figures, the African Americans who paved the way for desegregation at NASA get a chance to tell their story of the Space Race.
Figures is based on the true stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Computers – they’re literally called Computers – in NASA’s West Area Computing Unit at NASA’s Langley, Va. research center. Johnson, a math genius, is sent to work with flight research under the hard-nosed Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Vaughan, who runs the unit but without the title and appropriate pay, struggles to keep herself and the others from being replaced by real IBM computers. Johnson wants nothing more than to be a NASA engineer, but segregation is keeping her from achieving that dream.
Figures is such a unique story, one that’s not only never been told before, but one most people probably weren’t even aware of. I wasn’t. It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for the women behind Figures to get the movie treatment, considering Johnson’s work helped John Glenn become the first man to orbit the Earth. Half of the movie is spent wondering how this story went to long without being told. Kudos to Writer-Director Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) for bringing this essential story to the world.
The best part of Figures is it’s dedication to the three main characters. This could’ve easily been a one-note, rah rah film about the injustice of segregation, but Melfi and Co-Writer Allison Schroeder give every character layers and arcs, making for a satisfying narrative above all else. And with the political climate so volatile, Figures’ message inadvertently takes on an added layer of importance.
The mid-range, character driven Hidden Figures is almost a throwback to the classic dramas of yesteryear – and that also means the ’80s, a painful thing for someone born in 1979 to say – that struggle to cross over into the mainstream in 2016. With such a unique, amazing story, Hidden Figures shows that there’s room at the multiplex besides whatever comic book movie is playing at the moment. Not that all comic book movies are bad, but there can, and should, be other offerings for audiences, and Hidden Figures fits the bill.