Lawrence Toppman

Black women who helped put America in space get their day onscreen

Taraji P. Henson (background left), Octavia Spencer (center) and Janelle Monáe (background right) play women working behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960s who helped get astronauts into space in “Hidden Figures.”
Taraji P. Henson (background left), Octavia Spencer (center) and Janelle Monáe (background right) play women working behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960s who helped get astronauts into space in “Hidden Figures.” Hopper Stone, SMPSP

As if to ensure the 2016 Oscar nominations don’t come out as white as Santa’s beard, three fine films about African-Americans in the late ’50s and early ’60s have come out in the last eight weeks: “Loving,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”

The last, which is the least overtly emotional, makes subtle points while depicting three women who helped NASA enter the space race with the Soviet Union. Most people who watched John Glenn become the first man to orbit the Earth multiple times – myself included, as a boy in 1962 – had no idea such women put him up there safely.

Director Theodore Melfi wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. They never overstress a scene: Whites working around black colleagues are quietly dismissive but not overtly cruel, and a Virginia police officer who finds the trio stranded by the roadside is suspicious but not vicious. The movie indicts exclusion and racial hierarchy without finding villains inside that system.

“Figures” takes place at Langley Air Force Base, as officials make calculations for launches at Cape Canaveral. Math prodigy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) crunches numbers at amazing speed, but she’s more than a human computer in a pre-IBM age. Her insights into patterns go beyond those of male co-workers, and her boss (lethargic Kevin Costner) figures that out.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who oversees a pool of black female workers, wants the supervisor’s pay and title she has been denied. She figures to get them if she can learn to program electronic computers NASA will inevitably adopt. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) will become an engineer, if she can break into the segregated school system that keeps her out of night classes.

The film never preaches. When a white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) tells Dorothy Vaughan she has no prejudice toward “colored workers,” Vaughan politely but thoughtfully replies, “I’m sure you believe that.”

At the same time, the story feels somehow safe and cozy. We know Johnson is lonely after the death of her first husband, who left her with three children; just as we start to feel sorry for her, here comes a handsome, dignified colonel (Mahershala Ali) with courting on his mind. When Jackson eloquently pleads with a judge to let her attend a whites-only college class, there’s no doubt he’ll give in. We root for the three on their well-deserved but seemingly inevitable rise, as obstacles vanish one by one.

Spencer gets most of the laughs, and Monáe has the showiest speeches, so they’ve been nominated for most of the awards. But Henson has the hardest role: a prodigy ill-used by a society that barely knows she’s alive. Johnson is a rare character, a nerd who’s funny, brilliant and socially adept. Parents of any gifted child can take heart from this portrayal.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

“Hidden Figures”

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali.

Director: Theodore Melfi.

Length: 127 minutes.

Rating: PG (thematic elements and some language).

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