On paper, Hidden Figures has “Oscar-hopeful” written all over it. While it addresses issues of racism, sexism and inequality in 1960s America, what’s refreshing is that here is a story of lesser-known heroines. When you watch Hidden Figures (which is based on a true story) you are impressed and inspired by the struggle and determination of three women who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in the early 1960s. Along with performing critical functions that helped the US space programme race ahead of the Soviets, each woman’s effort was a pioneering achievement for black women in America.
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) fought their own battles and overcame opposition to become forerunners in their respective fields. These three brilliant minds not only had to reckon with the prejudice against African-Americans in the south, which still advocated segregation, but they were also women working in a ”man’s world”.
Director Theodore Melfi’s storytelling is unhurried and straightforward. Every time Katherine has to run across the campus just to find a coloured women’s toilet is costs her 40 minutes of precious time. As she moves into the think-tank of geniuses tasked with launching an American spaceship, she’s confronted by a cold war of a different kind. She’s assigned a separate “coloured” coffee pot and snubbed by her less competent co-workers, including the immovable statistician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).
The interactions between Johnson and programme head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) offer some of the most powerful scenes in an otherwise gentle and un-provocative film. There’s an especially touching moment where Harrison hands Katherine a piece of chalk during a high-level Pentagon briefing, knowing that she can solve an equation more accurately than the recently installed (First Generation) IBM computer. But the real breaking of the colour ceiling is illustrated by Vaughn’s quiet efforts to keep up with changing technology and prove that she’s the best person for the job. Her dignified acceptance of circumstance and proving her worth are best seen as she spars with her dogged superior (Kirsten Dunst).
The film doesn’t get distracted with its central trio’s home lives, besides widow Katherine’s relationship with a National Guard officer Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) and Mary’s legal fight to become an engineer at NASA. The film ends with the successful launch and orbital space journey of astronaut John Glenn. But the story does not end there. The real Katherine Johnson is 98 years old and a wing in NASA is named after her. She’s remained married to Jim Johnson for over 50 years.
The space programme reflects the heightened tension between the US and Russia during the Cold War. Hidden Figures, though, is more about race than the space race, both of which are conquered with grace and girl power.