Metro-East Living

NASA, black history will not stay hidden in ‘Hidden Figures’

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), left, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) worked at NASA in the early 1960s as mathematicians. Their lives are portrayed in “Hidden Figure,” which opens Friday nationwide.
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), left, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) worked at NASA in the early 1960s as mathematicians. Their lives are portrayed in “Hidden Figure,” which opens Friday nationwide.

Smart girls and math nerds rule! A stand-up-and-cheer crowd-pleaser, “Hidden Figures” chronicles the remarkable true story of three trailblazing African-American women in the early days of the NASA space program.

The film is set in 1961 at Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in Hampton, Va. Virginia was still a segregated state at the time, so the women faced a number of obstacles.

Mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is called upon to do analytical geometry for the Space Task Group. She becomes a deft problem-solver for a demanding NASA boss (Kevin Costner), under pressure to get the U.S. ahead in the space race.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) teaches herself coding to be more valuable when complicated new IBM machines are installed.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to be an engineer, but she must pass hurdles to even be accepted into the classes needed.

But their perseverance, determination and belief in themselves helps them break barriers and advance.

Their contributions are duly noted by director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. Shetterly’s father worked at NASA at the same time the pioneer trio did.

Unapologetically sentimental, “Hidden Figures” is a story we need to know — a fitting salute to three courageous women.

Performances

Actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae excel at playing smart women who must prove to co-workers that they belong and can achieve great things.

With warmth, humor and plenty of gumption, they depict this trio that wouldn’t let anything stand in its way. And thank goodness they didn’t. They are as much a part of NASA’s success story as the Mercury astronauts.

In supporting roles, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst are NASA supervisors who don’t help the women as they could or should.

Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) plays the kind suitor of Katherine, a widow with three young girls.

What Works

To see smart women work hard, achieve their goals and get their dues is inspiring. This is one of those astonishing stories we were in the dark about and are now grateful to learn.

What Doesn’t Work

The message can be heavy-handed, and a few of the more odious characters are drawn in broad strokes. Some of the events were dramatized heavily to tug on the heartstrings.

But it doesn’t detract that it can come across a little “Lifetime-y” because the achievements are reason to burst into applause and have audience members shout back.

The story itself is so compelling, and the women are so earnest, conveyed passionately by three fine actresses, that being emotionally manipulated in this instance works for me.

This is a tale that must be seen and is guaranteed to make women proud. Just make sure you have tissues on hand.

Hidden Figures

  • Stars: 3 1/2 out of 4
  • Director: Theodore Melfi
  • Starring: Taraji. P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali
  • Rated: PG for thematic elements and some language
  • Length: 2:07
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