The black women and their white co-workers at NASA never share a hug in the new comedy-drama “Hidden Figures.” That’s surprising because, after all, this is a Hollywood movie set in the racist South of the early 1960s. Isn’t the whole point to make us feel that our problems are safely in the past? “Hidden Figures” may be a thoroughly upbeat, entertaining movie, but it’s too smart to sugarcoat the truth about race relations in America — past or present.
“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three remarkable women played by three remarkable actresses. Taraji P. Henson is Katherine Johnson, a child math prodigy who grows up to become a low-level number-cruncher working on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. Octavia Spencer (the queen of the withering look) is Dorothy Vaughan, an underpaid supervisor who teaches herself to use NASA’s newest tool, called a “computer.” The movie’s sassy show-stealer, pop singer Janelle Monae, is Mary Jackson, who fights in court to attend a whites-only night school on her way to becoming NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer.
This is an absolutely sparkling cast, and “Hidden Figures” — breezily directed by Theodore Melfi, who wrote the fine script with Allison Schroeder — gives them every chance to shine. Each story feels like a movie in itself, with moments of heartbreak (Johnson works in an all-white office where even the coffee pots are separate but equal) and triumph (Jackson’s speech to a local judge is a masterful blend of moral outrage and Southern sweet-talk). Kevin Costner, as Johnson’s demanding boss, and Glen Powell, as John Glenn, strike minor notes of white saviordom, but “Hidden Figures” mostly lets the women be the heroines of their own stories. (The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book.)
There is a brief exchange in “Hidden Figures” that encapsulates the smart, subtle way this film delivers its message.
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“Despite what you may think,” says Vaughan’s boss, played by a chilly Kirsten Dunst, “I have nothing against y’all.” It’s the kind of thing many of us say when we want to avoid the taint of racism while enjoying everything it has to offer. Vaughan’s reply is the best line in the movie: “I know you probably believe that.”
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Theodore Melfi.
Running time: 2:07.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements and some language.