Set in 1961, it centres on the three real-life figures: mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and unofficial and unpaid supervisor Dorothy Vaugahn (Octavia Spencer). Certain liberties are taken in the telling of the story but still reflect the challenges these women faced in the segregated patriarchal times they lived through.
Johnson did calculate the flight trajectories for Mercury missions right through to the Apollo flights including getting the Apollo 13 mission back home. In 2015, she was awarded at the age of 97 the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour in the American awards system) by President Barack Obama.
At a critical point in the space race against the Soviets, America sought the best people for the work and these women seized the opportunity to contribute in the face of prejudice and long established ignorance. The racism of the time is present in many scenes, at a preview screening the audience visibly gasped when a white woman tells Johnson she doesn’t know where her bathrooms would be.
Yet the film remains upbeat for the most part with Kevin Costner as director Al Harrison recognising Johnson’s talent, Jackson admiring how fine astronaut John Glen is, Jim Parsons as head engineer Paul Stafford and Kirsten Dunst as supervisor Vivian Mitchell gradually learning to overcome their ignorance despite feeling threatened by the intelligence of these smart black women.
We see the home lives of the trio and how their community and friendship gave them strength and what their success meant for those around them. Up-tempo songs are contributed to the soundtrack by producer Pharrell Williams and moments that no doubt were more low key or did not take place in real life get emotions running high.
Whether it is Costner smashing down a segregated toilet sign, Parsons comically reeling at Henson’s insight or several female calculators led by Spencer marching into the new computer room to run it. Contrived though it may be, it is uplifting storytelling and aspiring for young girls out there interested in science and maths that have been wrongly told it's not their strong suit.
In an age of changing job demographics, racial tensions and political upheaval, ‘Hidden Figures’ has drummed up serious business at the American box office with a story of hope and empowerment. Now it’s Australia’s turn.