Movie Review: “Hidden Figures” gives Hollywood pizzazz to a story of math heroines in the Space Age

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Little known fact. It wasn’t just daring or pluck that made the Wright Brothers “First in Flight.” It was math. The siblings checked the figures on the generally accepted numeric tables calculating lift and drag on wings, found them wrong and after correcting them, went up — and down in history.

Another little known fact. Before we let machines have this title, people who could perform complex calculations using various formulae, filling blackboards or paper pads with co-efficients and calculus and what not, were called “computers.” When America was desperate to win World War II with superior aircraft designs, or win the Space Race by mastering launch trajectories and orbital state vectors, it turned to legions of women holding this civil service designation — “computers.”

And even at a time when the country was mostly segregated and the South still discriminated through the unbending application of Jim Crow laws, some of those women were black.

“Hidden Figures” is a quietly inspiring and generally straightforward film of Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction remembrance of those women who crossed the color line as they helped America break the sound barrier.

Condensing 20 years of history, applying “Hollywood” twists to real events and emphasizing the crowd-pleasing elements of the story, writer-turned-director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) has created a bright, entertaining history of the barrier-breaking work done by African American math whizzes at Hampton, Virginia’s Langley Research Center.

Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder skip past the World War II pre-history of these “computers,” mostly math teachers. alumni of historically black colleges teaching at segregated schools. America’s manpower and brainpower shortage during the war were the driving force in integration of both the armed forces and the civil service that backed them up.

We glimpse a gifted child from White Sulfur Springs, W. Va., named Katherine — daughter of a hotel porter — singled out for college because of her math proclivities.

And then we see the adult Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), piled into a worn-out Chevy with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), dealing with a Virginia cop in “Yessuh, nossuh” 1961. Dorothy heads off potential racist insults with the deft skill of a veteran of Life as a Black Woman in the South.

When the cop accepts what they do for a living, that they’re front line troops in the Space Race against the despotic Russians, he gives them a siren-backed escort to work, setting the tone for the picture. The rough edges of real history can be rubbed off. People can come together for a higher purpose, the inflexible can bend. And even racists have their soft spot for national security. Or used to, until this last election.

But at Langley, the women face a glass ceiling that is made even thicker by their skin color. They may be masters of analytic geometry, but their boss (Kirsten Dunst) just doesn’t want them to “embarrass” her. IBM is racing to put a machine in place that will render all the female computers — black and white — obsolete. Some of the NASA engineers (Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory”) resist integration and refuse to share credit on work they’ve done and scientific papers they’ve published, or even their coffee pot.

It’s up to the Big Boss (Kevin Costner) to play Santa in this version of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer.” All he cares about are results. There are lives, global prestige and a ticking clock at stake. He doesn’t have time for racist traditions and doesn’t care whose feathers he ruffles.

“If I said I was sorry, I’d be saying it all day.”

Just clock in, keep your head down and do good work, the older Dorothy counsels. To some degree, that’s just what happens. But that wouldn’t amount to much of a movie if they did, would it?

hidden1Facing injustices great (promotions, transfers, co-writing credit) and petty (“colored” restrooms, coffee pots and the like), our heroines stand up, speak up and mouth off — and make history as they do.

Melfi weaves a smart, compact picture of 1961 Virginia, and Hampton — an oasis of black academic achievement in an America that was still coming to grips with “Brown vs. Board of Education.” Cold War paranoia  (“Duck and cover” drills) and the head-shaking silliness of the architecture of racism share center stage.

The story plays up the sacrifices of these family women, the sexism that made them thin-skinned even during courtship (Mahershala Ali plays old fashioned Col. Jim Johnson, who married Katherine) and makes the women more outspoken than the real “Hidden Figures” actually were. But the heroics, the level of trust the astronauts put into these “best and brightest?” All true.

The film wisely leans on a couple of iconic Oscar winners in the cast. After “The Help,” Spencer has come to embody the quiet (or noisy) dignity of “the struggle.” And Costner’s late career has often had him playing an EveryAmerican who can be relied on to, as Spike Lee preached, “Do the Right Thing.” Sure, the women figured out a way to get that “colored” restroom sign removed on their own. Putting Costner in this role in this film means a sledgehammer Big Moment will illustrate that.

Our distance from the Space Age leads the film to more than its share of blunders, from the comically mismatched cluster of military insignias on “Col.” Johnson to the TV reporter who narrates John Glenn’s flight to “an altitude of 116 miles per hour.” The math whizzes back then weren’t holding microphones and smiling for the camera.

But warm and witty performances by Spencer, Hensen and Monae, the stoic moral stature Costner plays and unlikable-until-they’re-reasonable turns by Dunst and Parsons make “Hidden Figures” a winner, a piece of unknown history rendered flesh and blood funny, uplifting and never less than entertaining.

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MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Costner, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons

Credits:Directed by Theodore Melfi, script by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. A Fox release.

Running time: 2:05

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