I usually have a powerful aversion to films that can be described as “inspirational” or “a triumph of the human spirit,” as they often tend to resemble an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to go to school: Slow moving, fixated on details and prone to shameless attempts at emotional manipulation. But Hidden Figures manages to be uplifting history without tedium or pretense thanks to strong performances, as well as breezy pacing and a bouncy soundtrack.
The movie tells the story of a group of black female mathematicians and engineers whose expertise was crucial in launching the first manned NASA flights into orbit. The film’s main focus is on mathematical genius Katherine Johnson—with numbers in her head and a piece of chalk in her hand, she’s like Jordan on the court or Sinatra at the mic, and Taraji P. Henson projects a believable intelligence and authority, as well as a disarming warmth. Johnson’s talent earns her a spot in the space race sanctum sanctorum and the respect of Kevin Costner’s crusty department head (the scene where he crowbars a “colored” sign off of a restroom is satisfying, but you also feel like Costner demanded it.)
As aspiring engineer Mary Jackson, Janelle Monae gets the best lines and lends a touch of poised glamour to the proceedings that evokes Diahann Carroll in her ’60s Julia heyday. Octavia Spencer comes off as the most sensible and soft-spoken but, once she picks her battles, she fights them full on. It can also be argued that, out of the trio, she was the most groundbreaking figure, as basically the first IT person in history, arriving on the scene about two weeks after the first computer, which was just a metal box surrounded by perplexed men in ties until she showed up. Hidden Figures shows the discrimination these three women faced, but also captures their intellectual brilliance and their enthusiasm for their work.