Making space

New film explores the 'Hidden Figures' behind the space race

"Women's work," happily, is a term that has fallen out of fashion in America, and we're all at least vaguely aware of the historical and cultural steps along the way to more progressive workplaces, including the mobilization of a domestic female workforce during WWII. The new based-on-a-true-story drama "Hidden Figures" lives up to its name by promoting a lesser-known historical touchstone of women who made themselves utterly indispensable in a highly competitive workplace, through their keen intelligence and commitment to continuing education. That workplace was Langley Research Center, working on behalf of NASA, circa 1961.

Adapted by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi from Margot Lee Shetterly's book, "Hidden Figures" focuses on an extraordinary trio of African-American women working in a tensely segregated workplace: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). In an amusing irony, these female mathematicians were called "computers," even as they faced obsolescence from a giant IBM mainframe machine being painstakingly installed nearby.

A more immediate concern is being taken seriously in a racist and sexist environment dotted with obstacles both casual and hateful (Kevin Costner does his lived-in thing as Johnson's grumpy but sympathetic boss Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group). Johnson must literally run across campus to use the "colored" ladies' room, and she's expected to brew her own coffee rather than share that of her white colleagues. Elsewhere, Vaughan steals a "white" library book so she can learn FORTRAN on her own time, and Jackson must pursue a court date in order to win attendance at the white school that is her only path to becoming an aerospace engineer.

As raw material, the stuff of "Hidden Figures" could hardly be more historically, culturally significant, or inspirational, and as a PG-rated film, it's especially valuable as a STEM education boost for young girls. Unfortunately, in the hands of Melfi ("St. Vincent"), the story lacks nuance in the telling, and people speak in pronouncements ("Civil rights aren't always civil."). "Hidden Figures" almost never feels like real life, but rather like the second-grade reading level version of these women's stories, smoothed down by the rushing stream of popular-cinema narrative.

That said, we can all be grateful "Hidden Figures" exists. It helps to make famous three women who quietly changed the world, and at worst, it's a good children's movie that's a heckuva lot more edifying than, say, "Sing." Taken with "The Imitation Game" and "The Man Who Knew Infinity," "Hidden Figures" also heralds a bona fide trend in Hollywood dramas: the mathematician as hero.


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