Based on the true story told in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same title, Theodore Melfi’s film focuses on the early “computers” at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in this case humans working on mathematical orbit calculations. Most of these mathematicians were women and many were also black—hired after race-based discrimination was outlawed during the World War II worker shortage—including the three geniuses featured in the film: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math wunderkind; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who dreams of being an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), an unofficial supervisor who has been denied that very promotion. The film jumps to the heightened drama of 1961, when NASA is working overtime to figure out how to make it possible for the first American to orbit the Earth while their new IBM machine produces some questionable data. Even as they worked meticulously and invisibly for their country, the women depicted here were also engaged in the daily struggle of being female and black in the era of Jim Crow. An eye-opening complement to the celebrated heroics of The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures exposes what history has hidden for so long, restoring the humanity and complexity to a one-sided story. The film expertly embeds the women’s compelling challenges, successes and equally inspirational support of one another within the tension and thrill of the space race, which NASA finally “won” with the 1969 moon landing thanks to essential contributions from these remarkable computers.
Age recommendation: 9+