Based on true events, “Hidden Figures” (Fox 2000), co-written/directed by Thomas Melfi (“St. Vincent”) is the kind of uplifting movie we so desperately need during this particular holiday season. Despite its unfortunate title (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name), most of “Hidden Figures” may take place more than 50 years ago, but it remains as timely as ever. The film’s hot-button issues, including discrimination based on race and gender as well as strained relations with Russia, are sadly just as relevant today.
The three African-American women – Katherine (a marvelous Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (the always reliable Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe, who gives her second 2016 breakthrough performance after “Moonlight”) – stranded on the side of the road in Hampton, Virginia in 1961 are on their way to work as “computers” for NASA. A tense encounter with a cracker sheriff soon gives way to a much better and humorous outcome, indicating exactly the kind of movie “Hidden Figures” will be.
In the segregated work environment, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary work in a separate “colored” building, even though their abilities and contributions are often greater than that of their white counterparts. Fortunately, each of these women is given the opportunity to prove their mettle.
Katherine’s mathematical skills, specifically in regards to analytic geometry, earn her a place on the all-white/all-male engineers team headed by Al (Kevin Costner). Regardless of her intelligence, she is regularly belittled by her co-workers, Paul (out actor Jim Parsons) and Al’s secretary Ruth (Katherine Quinn, Melfi’s wife). Adding insult to injury, Katherine must run half a mile to get to the “colored” restroom in another building.
Dorothy and Mary also face challenges. Doing the work of a supervisor, without the title or the compensation, Dorothy is constantly at odds with her unpleasant boss Mrs. Michael (Kirsten Dunst). Meanwhile, Mary, who wants to further her career by getting an advanced degree, is forced to petition the court in order to apply to an all-white program.
In addition to the professional environment in which “Hidden Figures” is set, we get a glimpse of the women’s private lives. Katherine’s, in particular, is given a lot of screen time. A widowed mother of three, Katherine is dedicated to her daughters. When National Guardsman Jim (Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”) shows an interest in Katherine, it’s the kind of sweetly portrayed romance for the which the audience can’t help but cheer.
Everything about “Hidden Figures” is pure Hollywood, and yet, for all the gloss, it feels authentic. The clips that precede the end credits, including Katherine receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, only add to the validity.