There’s a lot to discover in the new movie, “Hidden Figures”.
It follows the trials of African American women working for NASA in the middle of the 60’s space race. At the heart of it is Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, a real-life mathematician who helps calculate the flight and landing trajectories for the Space Task Group.
The goal of the task group is to ensure the safety and success of astronaut John Glenn in his mission to become the first American to complete an orbit around the Earth, the mission that would put the first American in space and propel the U.S. to lead the space race and put a man on the moon.
In addition to Johnson, the movie also chronicles the struggles of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, pioneers in computer programming and engineering respectively.
What separates this underdog story for the ones that have come before is the two-fold discrimination the leads face. There’s white women who won’t take them seriously because they’re black, black men who won’t take them seriously because they’re women, and white men who won’t because they’re both. The endurance shown by all three characters through repeated discrimination and humiliation is inspiring.
Adding complexity to a rather straightforward genre are the stakes outside of the characters’ lives. If the pressure is too much for them, it’s not just their own careers in danger, but the lives of the astronauts whose safety they’ve been entrusted with. Progress is not the quiet struggle of a minority, but the necessity of all.
Octavia Spencer in particular in her role as Dorothy Vaughan proves her continued appeal isn’t hype. Her ability to verbally slap other characters with a single line is on display, and it feels good to watch her at work.
The film does an impressive job of balancing out its running time between its three leads, while also giving time to develop the supporting cast. Kevin Costner is back doing what he does best, as he plays Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group and the man charged with doing the impossible under great political pressure. While this performance isn’t a departure from anything he’s done before, fans of Costner wouldn’t have it any other way.
If there’s a warning to attach to this movie, it’s that it does not allow for passive viewing. You will get mad. From the large racial injustices to the petty slights, anyone with a half-developed sense of fairness will be outraged on behalf of the leads. That outrage, however, turns to drive over the course of the film, and it makes you cheer all the fiercer for these women’s success.
“Hidden Figures” proves that even as we look to the stars, the greatest leaps for mankind are worth making right here on terra firma.