One of the most gratifying qualities of “Hidden Figures” is how it bursts onto the screen like a shot of distilled, exhilarating joy. This bracing movie, about a group of black women whose scientific and mathematical skills helped NASA launch its space exploration program in the 1950s and ’60s, gets off to a spirited start and rarely lets up.
After a brief prologue, in which we meet Katherine Johnson as a teenage math prodigy, the film catches up with her in 1961, when she’s a widow working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., as a “computer,” sharing a ride to work with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The fact that these gifted women are played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Mone says all you need to know about a movie propelled by their salty and affecting performances. “Hidden Figures” is a warm, lively, often funny depiction of women whose brains and work ethics were indefatigable, even in the face of racism and sexism.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, “Hidden Figures” takes place at the height of the space race in the early 1960s, when the Soviets are winning the competition to get a manned mission into orbit, and when the pressure is on to get astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) and his colleagues in the Mercury program into their own supercharged tin cans. Although NASA is strictly segregated, with the black mathematicians occupying their own office, Katherine is the most gifted computer on the site. She’s sent to work with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who’s annoyed when she disappears frequently throughout the day, but is impressed by her impeccable results.
It turns out she’s running a mile and a half to use the “colored only” bathroom, a sequence played for laughs and wincing disbelief. This movie adroitly portrays the waste and inefficiency of racism and misogyny.
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Some of the film’s most stirring scenes feature the hackneyed conceit of clueless white folk being enlightened by their black educators, but Henson, Spencer and Mone give them grit and knowing gravitas.
“Hidden Figures” is pure pleasure to watch, with Melfi ratcheting up the tension as Glenn’s takeoff approaches. (It’s Katherine’s precise calculations that allow him to launch and land safely.)
With Glenn’s recent death, “Hidden Figures” has taken on even more poignancy and timeliness. It’s difficult to imagine a more stirring way to honor his memory, as well as the courage and vision of the extraordinary women who helped him to soar.
Rated PG for mature thematic elements and brief coarse language. 2:07. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.