The title “Hidden Figures” has a neat double meaning, referring to both African-American women and the mathematical work they produced for NASA behind a closed door reading “Colored Computers.” We come to learn that, in the early-’60s race to put a man in orbit before the Russians, white male governmental employees momentarily looked past skin color and brought the most talented people into the Space Task Group.
The film focuses on three colleagues of astronomical intelligence: Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a crack mathematician forever pushing the glasses up the bridge of her nose; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), an underutilized manager of the African-American computing pool; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer not shy about dispensing firecracker truths — a friend once pleads to her, “Please have some shame,” and she replies, “I will not.”
These women are often shot in bright print dresses that stand out against the crowd of men in white shirts and dark ties — their gender is as noticeable as their race.
Leading the sea of crewcut space cowboys is Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the Space Task Group director — he demands people work late hours and instructs his female charges that the only acceptable accessory is a pearl necklace. Kirsten Dunst deploys pearls and a Southern accent in a not particularly fruitful role as Mrs. Mitchell, the person blocking Dorothy from the title and salary she deserves as a supervisor. Katherine repeatedly tangles with Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the repellent head engineer of the STG. He knows full well that he is allowed many mistakes but that, when she is given a stick of chalk, any error probably means she’ll be expelled from NASA.
Luckily Katherine has a military colonel beau, Jim Johnson (played by Mahershala Ali with enough charm to make your knees knock) and an unimpeachable ally in astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell, as smooth with the ladies here as he was in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”).
Monáe is very sharp as Mary, and nails a great scene where she must explain to a judge that she, a black woman in Virginia, had no choice but to be first of her race and gender in engineering school. In sequences like that, “Hidden Figures” does a worthy service, bringing the tribulations of these trailblazers to the public eye.
Unfortunately, an already long film feels longer due to overly repetitive scenarios, as when we see many times that Katherine has to run a long way from the STG to reach the “colored” lavatory. Al Harrison eventually takes a crowbar to the odious restroom sign and is able to able to deliver the big line of the film, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” But it’s unclear whether he is doing the demo work from a righteous sense of racial justice or just because he wants her to take shorter bathroom breaks. And the film doesn’t do enough to address the fact that many women of color will be happily replaced by a massive IBM computer when it comes online.
Director Theodore Melfi has a difficult task, to reveal these unseen stories and engage in our bottomless nostalgia for mid-century life. The sets — physical manifestations of American apartheid — are perhaps historically correct, but the ugliness of the Jim Crow South is not apparent enough. The challenges and eventual triumphs of the three “Hidden Figures” is too frictionless, predestined as the rocket trajectories they map on the chalkboard. The film passes with a smooth inevitability and ends on a high note in the town square, having not looked down enough dark alleys of a nation wracked then — as now — by horrific racial biases.
‘Hidden Figures’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas and the Sebastiani Theater. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:07. Visitcinemawest.com andsebastianitheatre.com.