Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) knows mathematics inside and out. Her skills are so impressive that it’s not surprising that she works for NASA at a time when the United States is engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union. But as an African-American woman in the early 1960s, there’s only so far she can rise.
Her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) can understand. Although Dorothy supervises a group of black women who check the math involved in space missions, she lacks the proper title and salary. Mary is a whiz at engineering but because of her race is blocked from taking college courses necessary to advance her career.
Yet all three women are committed to NASA’s top priority: launching astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into a successful orbit of the Earth in 1962 and claiming the skies as American territory. Katherine’s calculations will prove to be essential to the mission, but not before she’s forced to endure the casual racism of white co-workers.
Fortunately, such behavior has no place in the plans of NASA honcho Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), whose focus is not on skin color but on what those on his team can do to help him beat the Russians.
Based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” is an admirable attempt to dramatize an overlooked aspect of American history. Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Allison Schroeder, director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) delivers a crowd-pleasing film that often resembles a sitcom but frankly addresses the social inequities of the period.
Henson, who is best known as Cookie on the “Empire” television series, turns in a charismatic performance as the math genius whom Glenn trusted with his life. Oscar winner Spencer (“The Help”) deftly balances wit and grit. And pop star Monae (“Moonlight”) once again demonstrates that she has what it takes to be a movie star.
“Hidden Figures” is a feel-good film of incalculable charm.
What “Hidden Figures” • Three stars out of four • Run time 2:07 • Rating PG • Content Thematic elements and language