Tracking the soaring trajectory of three unstoppable black female scientists, Hidden Figures begins counterintuitively – at the side of the road. The movie's lively protagonists have suffered a breakdown and are just fixing the ignition starter as a surly and suspicious white cop pulls up. When he discovers they all work at NASA, he quickly changes his tune and offers them a police escort into work.
As Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson speed along behind him, Mary declares: "Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down a highway in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle."
You can't complain that any of the main characters in Hidden Figures suffers from some unlikely humility or implausible unconsciousness of her exceptional position. On the contrary, this movie about three African-American women who helped the United States win the space race is filled with anachronistic declarations of their historical importance. But its story is so rousing and its characters so endearing, you can't help but join in the liberal cheerleading as Katherine the mathematician, Dorothy the computer whiz and Mary the aspiring engineer break through the double-glass ceiling and shoot off into space, leaving a bunch of stunned white male NASA technocrats gazing after them.
Hidden Figures is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and, yes, however unlikely their story may seem, Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were real people. (Only Johnson, age 98, is still alive.) It's a point made at the end of this movie as photographs of the actual women appear before the credits.
The history that Shetterly has so cleverly uncovered is this: desperate for brain power during the Cold War, the U.S. space program stumbled upon an underestimated group, the African-American mathematicians relegated to working as teachers in the segregated schools in the South. They became NASA's "computers," a group depicted in the film as a segregated pool of female clerical staff who spend their days manually doing the math for NASA's engineers.
From there, you have to guess that screenwriter Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi have fictionalized boldly as they follow the trio of friends. The gentle widow Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), single mother to three girls, is a mathematical genius who single-handedly finds the formula for John Glenn's orbit of the Earth. The bold Mary (Janelle Monáe) is determined to become an engineer and gets a court order to let her complete the high-school credits she needs in an all-white school. And the bossy and cunning Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), supervisor of the math pool, figures out how to program the new IBM computer that threatens to replace her "girls."
All three performances are charming but Henson shines especially as the gentle yet determined Katherine, creating a sympathetic portrait of a woman of astounding intellectual gifts but rather ordinary social skills trying to find a place for herself in a condescending and prejudiced world.
There are many dramatic moments here that seem more Hollywood than NASA. Katherine disappears for long stretches every day to cross the entire NASA campus to get to a segregated washroom: Melfi shows her making this desperate trip in her high heels several times too many and when her boss, a fictional character played by a forceful Kevin Costner, discovers the reason, he marches over and takes a pick axe to the "colored" sign.
In another exchange that suggests people routinely compare their human-rights histories with each other, Mary's boss insists that if he survived the Holocaust to make it to NASA, she can become an engineer. He asks whether, if she were a white man, she would sign up for the training to which she emphatically replies, "I wouldn't need to. I would already be an engineer." Meanwhile, when Dorothy decides to learn the computer language Fortran, she has to steal the book from the whites-only section of the public library.
And yet, as Henson's Katherine stands in the middle of the engineering lab filled with indistinguishable white guys in white shirts and black ties, doing her equations on the massive blackboard, the lack of realism – surely many of the other workers in the room also used the blackboard from time to time – is overwhelmed by the visual symbolism: the white men have become an anonymous backdrop to the achievement of one black woman.
For all that it tells a highly unusual story, Hidden Figures is a classic Hollywood feel-good movie. This has been a year of notable achievement for African-American performers and stories, from the surprising observations about masculinity in Moonlight to the gently told civil-rights saga of Loving. In that sober-sided company, Hidden Figures is a face-licking puppy dog of a film.
Hidden Figures opens Dec. 25.