Hidden Figures (PG)
Starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner Directed by Theodore Melfi
An Academy Award contestant this Monday for best picture, screenplay, as well as supporting actress Octavia Spencer. Hidden Figures is the unheralded story of the three female African-American visionaries in the vanguard of the space programme at 1960s NASA, calculating data for the first manned missions.
America have them to thank for winning the high-stakes space race against the Soviet Union, and the Apollo 11 astronauts, indeed, all of humanity, are indebted to them for launching Man into orbit.
But what these women had to go through.
Spencer plays the dogged Dorothy Vaughan, who is passed over for a managerial promotion by her condescending supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) despite already managing a team of mathematicians.
The singer Janelle Monáe in a sassy turn is headstrong Mary Jackson, who petitions a local judge to attend night classes at the segregated University of Virginia for her engineering degree.
And then there is Taraji P Henson as shy, brilliant Katherine Johnson, a young widowed mother of three. Johnson is the sole black female at the Space Task Group in a roomful of white male egos, where a coffee pot is labeled "Colored Only" for her use and the closest ladies’ available to her is half a mile away from their Langley, Virginia campus.
Kevin Costner is the pragmatic department chief annoyed at her long toilet breaks. He takes a sledgehammer to the segregated restroom sign: “At NASA,” he declares, “we all pee the same colour.”
If only. The outburst is Hollywood-scripted, of course, and Costner’s a fictional composite character. All too true, however, were the heroines’ struggles against sexism and racism during a defining chapter in American history at the intersection of the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and the scientific breakthroughs (hello, IBM).
Director Theodore Melfi (St Vincent), adapting from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, is uncomplicated in honouring them with a well-told feel-good crowd-pleasing studio picture.
Johnson, now 98, gets the bulk of the screen time. The triumph, though, is collective, as the actresses make known, interacting with generosity and embodying ebulliently these courageous sisters unafraid to aim for the stars. 3.5/5