'Hidden Figures' gives strong black women the spotlight, earns its tears of joy

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who helped send John Glenn into orbit.

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who helped send John Glenn into orbit. Hopper Stone

We don’t deserve Taraji P. Henson.

After earning a richly deserved Oscar nod for embodying maternal warmth in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she’s most prominently been seen on TV’s Empire these last few years. Until now, at least: Hidden Figures makes good on its title twice over, bringing both its subjects and its performers into the spotlight where they belong.

Henson is a magnetic enough presence to build a film around, but Theodore Melfi’s account of three black women who played crucial roles at NASA in the 1960s doesn’t have to. The main trio is rounded out by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, with Monáe in particular standing out: A musician who’d barely acted prior to last year, she’s excellent both here and in Moonlight (as is Mahershala Ali, who likewise appears in both films).

Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematical genius called in to assist the effort of safely launching John Glenn into space; Spencer is Dorothy Vaughn, manager of the “Colored Computers” department, not that her title and pay reflect her responsibilities; and Monáe is Mary Jackson, who’d already be an engineer were the system not designed to prevent her from reaching her full potential. This being an inspired-by-true-events tale of overcoming the odds, there’s never any question of them ascending to their rightful positions. Even so, Hidden Figures is the rare crowd-pleaser to earn its tears of joy.

The racism these three women encounter in the workplace isn’t violent, but it is institutionalized and quietly dehumanizing: Katherine is the only black person in her department, meaning she’s also the only one who has to drink out of a coffee pot labeled “colored” and walk to another building half a mile away to use the bathroom. This latter problem leads to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, as well as the only one typical of its genre: Asked where it is she disappears to for 45 minutes a day by her angry boss (Kevin Costner), she finally enlightens him about the bathroom situation — and he’s taken aback.

The moment is key for two reasons. One is because Costner instantly goes out of his way to remedy the situation, providing the feel-good line “here at NASA, we all pee the same color” in the process. The other is because it shows how easy it is to perpetuate prejudice without intending to or even realizing it. Separate bathrooms in separate buildings never affected this Big Picture thinker until now, and so he was able to dismiss it as “just the way things are.”

Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons play the other two products-of-their-environment types whose main function is to gradually understand that, though this is the way it’s always been, it needn’t be that way forever. Credit where it’s due, though: Hidden Figures isn’t another “white people solve racism” movie, but rather one in which they step aside and let those actually affected by it do work that benefits them all.

Films dealing with the racism of the past tend to flatter viewers’ sensibilities, subtly assuring us that we’ve made so much progress since then and things are so much better now. Though it was surely unintentional, Hidden Figures has arrived at a moment when we’re in danger of moving backward rather than forward — which only makes the film more important.

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Now playing, area theaters