Every so often, Hollywood actually finds something new under the sun and tells us a story we haven’t heard before. “Hidden Figures” is about the unheralded group of African-American women who crunched numbers for NASA in the early 1960s, when the space race against the Russians was heating up the Cold War. Skilled mathematicians all, they took the theoretical equations of the white male engineers and turned them into workable data, often on the fly and always subject to last-minute revisions.
For this, the women were called “computers” — that’s what they did: they computed — and the movie captures our final cultural seconds of innocence before the arrival of big tech. There’s an IBM mainframe that NASA has ordered up, but it’s literally too big to fit through the door. For the moment.
“Hidden Figures” also captures a moment of peak schizophrenia in America, when these women were contributing their brainpower to a major historical initiative yet were second-class citizens both outside the office and within it. The same TV sets that send out fuzzy black-and-white images of NASA’s rocket launches here also beam in news footage of civil rights marches, beatings, and church bombings.
The movie opens on that fulcrum, then cannily smooths our anxiety away. The three main characters, Katherine Gobel Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), have encountered car trouble on a country road on their way to work at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. A rural officer pulls up behind them. The movie tenses and so do we.
Then he sees their NASA IDs and gives them a police escort, Mary cackling at the irony of it all. “Hidden Figures” never fully loses its sense of threat — the notion that this could all be taken away at any moment — but it’s a crowd-pleaser at heart, and the true stories it relates are too rich to want to do anything other than celebrate.
Spencer’s Dorothy is the tough-minded mother hen, overseeing 30 “computers” without the title or the pay that comes with being a supervisor. (Her boss is a genteelly stern white woman named Mrs. Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst as if the debutante’s gloves had never come off.) Monae’s Mary wants to earn her engineer’s degree; she has all the scientists in the rocket lab rooting for her and a state educational system aligned against her. Both actresses are fine, authoritative company and Monae, already an eccentric genius of pop music, has the charisma of a born movie star.
The script, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same title by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi, focuses mainly on Katherine, as shy as her two friends are forthright. Among its other attributes, “Hidden Figures” is a paean to black female nerds, a generally overlooked demographic in American media, and the film’s major through-line is the heroine’s gathering confidence as she struggles to be accepted by the white male analysts of the Space Task Group.
I think after “Hustle and Flow” and “Person of Interest” and especially her Cookie Lyon on “Empire,” a lot of us are willing to follow Taraji P. Henson anywhere. Her character here is a proud mouse. Katherine doesn’t want to make waves but she knows what her big, beautiful brain is capable of, and (as the movie warmly depicts) she has the support of a vibrant community to back her up: her friends, her mother (Donna Biscoe), her three young daughters (Ariana Neal, Saniyya Sidney, and Zani Jones Mbayise), and a courtly military man (Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight”) to possibly replace the husband who died sometime in the fog before the movie began.
The community at NASA is more fraught and competitive, and it often neglects to see Katherine at all, other than to offer her her own separate-but-equal coffee pot. Jim Parsons of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” is on hand as head engineer Paul Stafford — he’s the heroine’s designated roadblock — and a nicely modulated Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, a fictionalized NASA director who’s the first to notice her gifts. I highly doubt that anyone like him took a sledgehammer to the Colored Women’s bathroom sign in real life and announced that everybody at NASA pees the same color, but that’s Hollywood.
To its credit, “Hidden Figures” keeps its eye firmly on the women whose successes it’s dramatizing rather than the white characters who (it’s implied) magnanimously allow them to succeed. Glen Powell, last seen motormouthing his way through “Everybody Wants Some!!,” is positively charming as the young John Glenn, an all-American hero seen taking pains to bring the colored computers and Katherine in particular into the conversation.
Fine. He and Harrison are the enablers, and “Hidden Figures” is comfort food cinema that insists these women would be getting there on their own soon enough but thanks for the help. The film’s made with more heart than art and more skill than subtlety, and it works primarily because of the women that it portrays and the actresses who portray them. Best of all, you come out of the movie knowing who Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are, and so do your daughters and sons.
Directed by Theodore Melfi. Written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 127 minutes. PG (thematic elements and some language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.