There is nothing subtle about the racism and sexism that pervaded our society, especially in the South, during the 1950s and 1960s–so criticizing a movie about that period for being blatant in its treatment of the subject may be wrongheaded. Hidden Figures compensates for a lack of nuance by telling a story so incredible and inspiring it’s hard to believe we haven’t known of it before.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play brilliant young women who work for NASA in Langley, Virginia at the outset of the space race. Henson is a mathematical genius whose gift was recognized when she was just a child, but like her friends she suffers from two societal problems: she is black and female. NASA employs a number of intelligent African-American women, but it’s still a man’s world and strictly segregated. Even when Henson is promoted to a position of crucial importance she still has to run half a mile to a “colored” restroom.

Spencer’s character works as a “computer,” but when she sees the agency installing a gigantic IBM machine she takes it upon herself to learn programming and teaches her colleagues so they can stay ahead of the curve. Monáe needs a judge’s permission to attend night classes to expand her knowledge and fights for that right…while raising a family.

Even allowing for dramatic license, this is a remarkable saga. All three women deserve to be better known and recognized for their work. Katherine Johnson, who is portrayed here by Henson, was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97.

The film’s other leading character is white and male, a composite figure played by Kevin Costner. As the person tasked with crunching the numbers needed to launch a man into space, and then into orbit, he works with brilliant men and is only interested in results. Yet he can’t avoid noticing Henson’s brilliance and gives her room to grow, unlike his hidebound staff. Was there someone as progressive as that at NASA? I’d like to think so.

Hidden Figures is based on a just-published book by Margot Lee Shetterly, adapted by Allison Schroeder and the film’s director Theodore Melfi. It is designed to rouse an audience and I can’t see how it can fail to do so. The heroines of this tale are both admirable and likable, as played by these three talented actresses. The barriers they break are begging to be demolished. What the movie may lack in nuance it makes up for in good will.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024