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‘Hidden Figures’ trio has the right stuff

If you think your job’s bad, imagine being the poor soul who’s in charge of marketing the Commonwealth of Virginia these days.

Thanksgiving weekend brought the awards-season contender “Loving,” which chronicled the real-life plight of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga), who in 1958 were rousted out of bed in the middle of the night, thrown in jail and banned from Virginia for 25 years for having violated “God’s law” when the interracial couple had the gall to get married.

Now comes another awards contender, “Hidden Figures”, which tells the true story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who were vital to the Apollo space missions, and some of the indignities they suffered because their employer, Langley Memorial Research Lab, was in Hampton, Virginia.

As the movie opens, Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Jackson (singer Janelle Monae), all of whom serve as human computers for the NASA precursor the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, are on the side of the road, their car having broken down on their way to work. When a white cop approaches them, they brace for the worst. By the end of the encounter, though, when he realizes they’re late for work — work that involves helping to beat the Russians in getting a man into space — he’s giving them a police escort.

 

But not everything in the inspiring, crowd-pleasing “Hidden Figures” is that rosy for the trio who work in the “colored computers” room.

Jackson has the mind of an engineer, but she can’t apply to be one because she hasn’t taken a course that’s only offered at an all-white high school.

Johnson, the lone employee of any race who can handle analytic geometry, is promoted to the Space Task Group. But since she’s the first black woman they’ve ever let in that building, there isn’t a bathroom for her, so she has to run a half mile to the other end of the campus whenever the need arises. And when she pours herself a cup of coffee, she’s met with harsh stares from her co-workers until someone buys a cheap “colored” coffee pot.

And Vaughan not only is denied the title and benefits of supervisor despite doing the work of one, she’s kicked out of the local library for straying from the colored section because the book she needed — on FORTRAN, the then-cutting-edge programming language — was in the whites-only section.

While racial injustices are an important factor in “Hidden Figures,” director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and his co-writer, Allison Schroeder (“Mean Girls 2”), who adapted the book by Margot Lee Shetterley, mostly keep things light and uplifting. Vaughan shields her children from an anti-segregation protest, and a TV briefly shows news footage of a Freedom Riders bus bombing, but that’s as serious as things get.

As for the movie’s “villains,” there’s the token white devil (Kirsten Dunst), who throws as many obstacles as she can at the women, and the lead engineer (Jim Parsons), who seems more upset at Johnson’s being a woman than her being African-American. But they’re both pretty harmless. “Hidden Figures” may be the most entertaining civil rights movie I’ve ever seen.

As vital as Jackson’s and Vaughan’s contributions were, “Hidden Figures” mostly focuses on Johnson, as she helps Space Task Group Leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) develop “math that doesn’t yet exist” in order to bring John Glenn (Glen Powell, Fox’s “Scream Queens”) into, and then out of, orbit.

Johnson’s personal life also gets the most attention, as the widowed mother of three young girls is set up by her friend and colleague Jackson with a military man (Monae’s “Moonlight” co-star Mahershala Ali).

Henson carries the bulk of the movie, and does it with a restrained dignity. Monae gets the flashiest role and, between this and “Moonlight,” is proving to be a powerful screen presence. And Octavia Spencer is Octavia Spencer, and Octavia Spencer is good at pretty much everything.

But while their characters certainly existed, you can’t help but feel as though a few — maybe more than a few — liberties were taken with their stories, which feel somewhat Disney-fied.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Hidden Figures” wisely leaves the serious racism to other movies in favor of being the feel-good story of three friends who ultimately prove that they, too, have the right stuff.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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