'Hidden Figures' is unoriginal but has an irresistible story

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Hidden' stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe as women working at NASA in the run-up to John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth.

Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox/AP
‘Hidden Figures’ stars Taraji P. Henson (background, l.), Octavia Spencer (c.), and Janelle Monáe (background, r.).

The story that “Hidden Figures” tells is so irresistible that you can almost forgive the fact that the movie itself is resistibly unoriginal. It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser with a heavy history lesson undertow.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book “Hidden Figures,” it’s about the black female mathematicians who were employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the run-up to John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth. (That Glenn, the last survivor of the Mercury Seven astronauts, died recently gives the film an unintended layer of poignancy.) 

Unlike their white counterparts, the 20 or so women were given no official designation. They worked in a dingy basement far away from the white mathematicians and engineers in NASA’s Langley Research Center. 

The film focuses on three standouts: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who manages the African-American “computers” and chafes at not being given the rank of supervisor, since she already does the work; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), the most confident of the trio, who, to advance her work on the Mercury capsule prototype, crashes the all-white engineer training program at the University of Virginia; and shy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), whose grasp of analytic geometry renders her indispensable to NASA, much to the dismay of the white mathematicians she mixes with on their own turf. 

These women’s stories have not exactly gone unsung – Shetterly’s book was a bestseller – but the filmmakers keep pointing out how discriminatory their journey was. Katherine, for example, is shown repeatedly racing, in heels, to the bathroom for African-Americans a half mile across the Langley campus. When the situation, and others like it, present themselves to Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), an unsympathetic supervisor, she states matter-of-factly that “they’ve never had a colored in here before.” To most of the white NASA staff, segregation is “just the way things are.”

One of the few exceptions to this way of thinking is Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s martinet boss. Oblivious at first to her difficulties, focused only on the Glenn mission, he comes to realize how valuable she is – and what she is up against. In the movie’s rowdiest scene, he storms over to the whites-only bathroom and resolves Katherine’s problem with a finality that is shamelessly satisfying. 

I wish there had been a larger sampling of sympathetic white people in “Hidden Figures,” not because I’m touchy-feely but because, as dramatized, the scenario seems rigged. By making Harrison essentially the sole good guy, among a team that includes a particularly sniffy and condescending lead engineer (Jim Parsons), the movie simplifies a complex racial dynamic. We know that people like that engineer, or Vivian Mitchell, are in the movie only to be reformed by the end. They come to see the light. Meanwhile, we can see it coming a mile away.

I also never really sensed any seething animus among the black women toward their racially biased co-workers, although some of that must surely have been stirring around inside. The women are fitfully angry and continually frustrated, but mostly they’re steely in their determination to be the best that they can be despite the odds. Hate would only drive them off-course.

Because the three actresses are so intensely likable, it’s easy to buy into this relatively halcyon portrait. Spencer especially is great at playing both down-home and worldly-wise. And Costner gives three dimensions to what could easily have been a cardboard caricature. 

The movie ends with clips and photos of the real women. As grateful as I was to see these clips, they made me pine for a documentary about the ladies. Memo to Ken Burns: Is there any law that says we can’t have both? Grade: B (Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.