The film depicts a little-known piece of NASA history as it follows African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who work in the segregated West Area Computers division of NASA's Langley Research Center in 1961. When Katherine is assigned to the Space Task group, Dorothy aims for a promotion to department manager, while Mary hopes to become the first female engineer at NASA. All three are faced with the overt racism and biases of a segregated America, but their calculations eventually play a pivotal role in helping astronaut John Glenn become the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of the Earth.
The racial injustices of Hidden Figures are sometimes painted as obsolete today; the film chooses to focus on the aspects of racial segregation that no longer legally exist, such as separate libraries and bathrooms. Its insistence on having characters specifically reference when and where they're living can sometimes feel as though the film wants us to believe that, no matter how bad things are now, at least this form of racism is over, which tends to lead to stilted, awkward dialogue sounding more like a history lesson than real people speaking to each other.
A scene in which Kevin Costner, as brilliant and brusque head of the Space Task group Al Harrison, smashes a "Colored Only" washroom sign — as well-intentioned and, obviously, meaningful as it is — is especially ham-fisted. However, these scenes do serve to demonstrate how steep the uphill battles these women had to fight, and as an audience, we're all the more emotionally invested in them. Every win, no matter how small, feels like a major victory.
Hidden Figures succeeds occasionally at depicting the more fluid and coded examples of bigotry that transcend time and place. In an early scene, Katherine's Chevy Impala breaks down by the side of the road on the way to work, and when they're stopped by a white, male police officer, the tension is as strong with today's audience as it might have been back then. Dorothy's boss, Vivian (played by a quietly icy Kirsten Dunst), is a woman who sympathizes with Dorothy's struggles to be seen as a person beyond her gender, but her condescension and coldness towards Dorothy betray an inner bigotry that speaks volumes about the lack of solidarity white women show with their black sisters.
The film's memorable score, by Pharrell Williams, offers a jazzy, hopefully upbeat soundtrack to the proceedings. All three leads are fantastic and endear their audience to them immediately, from the awkward yet assertive Johnson to ambitious mother hen Vaughan and the elegant, smart-mouthed Jackson. Mainstream biographical films about women in STEM are still surprisingly few and far between, and it's refreshing to see three smart, stylish, outgoing women tackle complicated mathematics and physics while frankly discussing their love and family lives.
They navigate the difficulties of being black women in STEM as well as being women in 1960s America, and Hidden Figures deftly switches between their career struggles and the trials of being women who aspire to being more than just a wife, a mother or the colour of their skin.