[I'm not sure it's possible to spoil Hidden Figures in the normal sense, based as it is on historical events. But, whatever, spoilers.]
I was so hoping this movie would be good. So hoping. As it turns out, well, if anyone tells you this movie is delightful, wonderful, inspiring, triumphant ... they're underselling it badly. It's way better than that.
As you surely know already, it tells the intertwined stories of three African-American women, all employed as mathematicians at NASA Langley during the early days of the space race. These women faced all the burdens any mathematician, scientist, or engineer did at the time -- and a whole lot more, for interrelating reasons of sex, class, and race.
Race is, of course, never far from the consciousness of this movie. Police dogs snarl at anti-segregation protesters just across the street from one of our main characters, Dorothy, who's just smuggled a precious computer programming book out of a whites-only library. Another main character, Katherine, must run half a mile back and forth across Langley's campus every time she needs to use the facility's only colored ladies' room -- in high heels, too!
One of the most emotionally affecting moments for me came when our third viewpoint character has to talk a judge (he's white, of course) into letting her attend engineering night classes at a local segregated school. I was torn between my wordless fury that she'd have to beg anyone for her rights -- and my enormous admiration for how masterfully, how coolly, how confidently she does it.
And yet Hidden Figures is not just a movie about race -- it's also a movie about the space race, with all that that entails. As they're struggling with issues of race, these women -- and the white men and women they work with -- are struggling to succeed against the Russians, too, to put satellites and then men into orbit. You feel the stakes keenly, and when the triumphs come, you can glimpse the pride they must have all felt knowing it was their work, their brains that underlay that success. That's John Glenn in space, and he's there because of my math, damn it!
The movie is just filled with little touches that I adored. On the day of Friendship 7's launch -- the craft that was to make John Glenn the first American in orbit -- the new IBM mainframe spits out an incompatible set of numbers. The Langley boss is urgently discussing this with Glenn by phone, and Glenn asks for the numbers to be cross-checked by Katherine, our heroine mathematician, whose intellectual prowess Glenn had earlier admired in a meeting. Telling the Langley boss which person he means, Glenn says, "You know, the smart one."
Not "the Negro one," as so many at the time might have said. The smart one. If the movie has a quietly defining moment, it might be that. Space is hard, and it doesn't care about irrelevancies like race or sex. Just brains, and persistence. Our heroines have that in spades, and it's why they succeed.
It's also why the movie succeeds -- the brains and persistence, and the undeniable humanity, of its main characters are uplifting. Genuinely -- and I often distrust this word -- but genuinely inspirational.
In case you couldn't tell, I loved, loved, loved this movie. And even having said all this, I still feel like I'm underselling it badly. Go see it.