Hidden Figures (2016)

Drama Rated PG

Tenderness is the distinguishing characteristic of Hidden Figures, a historical drama that focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—three African-American women whose math and engineering skills made them key contributors to the success of the NASA space program in the early 1960s. The film is obvious and redundant—I lost track of the times one of the women would enter a room full of white men, who would stop what they’re doing and stare at her, aghast—yet it’s still more elegantly crafted than most movies shown in middle-school classrooms. That’s the most fitting venue for Hidden Figures, as its true value is instructional. This is a rare glimpse of the black (and female) experience as it pertains to wider American history, detailing how racism can be both personal (after being promoted to a different section, Katherine has to walk a half mile back across the NASA campus to use the “coloreds only” bathroom) and institutional (she’s also expected to do better work than anyone else while given only a portion of the information she needs). Bringing real feeling to the film’s extremely broad strokes are Taraji P. Henson (as Katherine), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy), and Janelle Monáe (Mary), with Monáea recording artist new to the screenshowing potent flickers of potential star power. The tenderness that permeates the film comes largely from these performances, as well as the many domestic moments that take place outside of the office. Hidden Figures depicts 1960s black life as nurturing (Katherine is the widowed mother of three girls) and joyous (there’s a sweet church picnic scene), even as debilitating discrimination was the order of the day.