Films based on true stories are a dime a dozen, particularly at this time of the year. Stories of this sort that follow a particular path – overcoming adversity, coming out strong at the end – are even more commonplace. Most of the films that tend to stand out find a way to break out of a particular narrative mold. Hidden Figures is not that kind of film, but with its focus on three space pioneers who, true to the title, have been hidden figures in history, its adherence to narrative formula help make it a rousing film with a clear message and a satisfying conclusion.
In 1961, a trio of African-American women working at NASA in data entry jobs – Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – became crucial members in America’s space program, overcoming institutional racism that diminished their contributions and saw them fighting their ways into promotions.
For Katherine, the center of the film, her background as a math prodigy leads to her being pulled from the computing room (computing in this case referring to people, not machines) and placed on a team that will calculate the launch coordinates and trajectory for a rocket. Among her challenges: the only restroom she can use is in a building a mile away, and when she goes for a cup of coffee, her coworkers are shocked. Dorothy, meanwhile, is repeatedly denied promotion to supervisor in spite of doing the work for the position by her immediate boss (Kirsten Dunst). The engineer Mary works for is surprisingly enlightened, and encourages her to apply for a new position, but she runs into Jim Crow laws that keep her from taking graduate-level physics courses.
The racism each woman faces isn’t usually of the stereotypical overtly cruel sort, or the kind that loudly says that white people are superior. It’s the (relatively) more subtle sort, that considers interactions to be acceptable to a point, but only to that point. To the film’s credit, as characters shift beliefs, they aren’t commended for shifting their beliefs. The closest the film comes to that is showing two men who simply don’t have time for the racism of their colleagues – John Glenn (Glenn Powell), who’s happy to treat everyone as part of the team to get him to space, and Al Harrison, the head of Katherine’s group who’s far more concerned with the mission than the color of anyone’s skin.
The film works to flesh out the lives of the three women at its center, showing them interacting with the world and each other outside of NASA while at home or church. In doing so, it helps tether the film into the broader world during the 60s. While different in tone, it’s worth noting this takes place in the same state and around the same time as another drama that’s in theaters now, Loving. Taken with that more sobering look at history, Hidden Figures can provoke outrage at the injustices these women faced, while also feeling tremendous pride in the work these women did for the country in spite of the adversity they faced.