The early days of the American space programme and the missions to the moon have been dealt with in cinema on numerous occasions – with The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 indisputably being two of the best. And thanks to such films (as well, of course, as plenty of news coverage at the time) names such as Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are pretty well known across the globe. Less well known are names such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson – three women who were just as important to the space programme as the aforementioned men. And that's pretty much the crux of Hidden Figures.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film is the story of three African-American women who worked in various capacities at NASA in the early 1960s – Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Jackson (Janelle Monae). Having been beaten into orbit by the Soviet Union, in 1962 NASA is working to get the first American, astronaut John Glenn, into orbit – and these three women play an instrumental role in that. All three are brilliant in their own right – a mathematician, an engineer and a computational wizz – but they have big hurdles to overcome in the America of the early 1960s; sexism and racism put plenty of barriers in their way. Watching a film such as this in 2017, it's infuriating to witness the stupidity of segregation – especially in an organisation such as NASA, which seems to be mired in the past while rushing headlong into the future as it reaches for the stars.
Hidden Figures is a joy to watch on so many levels. It's a fascinating look at an exciting period in history that saw so many advances and innovation, and yet in many ways was still mired in the past. We learn things that I am sure most of us weren't aware of – such as the fact that before electronic computers really came along (although the film does have a plot thread about the first IBM mainframe being installed at NASA), the people who did all the calculations (mainly African-American women) were called computers. And it's delightful to see a film with such interesting and strong female characters front and centre. Conversely, the segregation (which we know for a fact was stil in place in many US states in 1962) feels strange and is uncomfortable to watch – the African-American characters have to use separate entrances, cafeterias, bathrooms and even drinking fountains. Yet despite all the barriers put in their way, our heroines manage to rise to the occasion and get the job done.
The performances all round are outstanding, as you would expect from a film with the always-watchable Spencer in the lead role. Henson (probably best known for her work on the TV series Empire) is also great, but the big surprise here is Monae. I was completely unaware of her music career before seeing her in Hidden Figures (and her smaller role in Moonlight), but her acting prowess is unquestionable and she keeps making smart film choices such as these is on track to become a big movie star. (the fact that she is stunningly beautiful is also sure to help.) There's also some wonderful chemistry between the three leads, and some of the film's best scenes take place when the three of them are all together. The production designers also deserve praise for their faithful recreation of 1962 America and a very realistic depiction of NASA's Langley headquarters. And despite many scenes that deal with number-crunching, computer programming and writing equations on blackboards, the film is never dull or tedious.
Hidden Figures tells a very timely story with a great sense of humour, strong characters and a fascinating and compelling narrative. It's a smart film that doesn't feel preachy and at just over two hours it doesn't outstay its welcome.