Hidden Figures: Old Fashioned Space Race Drama, Starring Taraji Henson and Olivia Spencer Qualifies for this Year’s Oscars

Fox has given the space race drama Hidden Figures an Oscar-qualifying release Christmas Day. The film opens wide January 6, 2017.


Oscar-nominee Taraji Henson portrays Katherine Johnson, a mathematics genius, while Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson as a trio of brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind the 1962 launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit — a stunning achievement that turned around the Space Race.


Johnson, who worked at NASA from 1952 to 1979, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. The film is directed by Melfi from a screenplay co-written with Allison Schroeder, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s upcoming non-fiction book — “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”

Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and Melfi are producing along with Pharrell Williams, who is overseeing the soundtrack and writing original songs.



Rousingly buoyant, the film’s opening scene sets a satisfying tone for the rest of the saga. The car-pooling trio are pulled over by a white cop, who finds it hard to belief that they work at NASA and, what’s more, that Dorothy is skillful enough to fix a Chevy Impala herself.

Katherine is first to be promoted to a job with the Space Task Group, where white manager Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), sees her talent, even if he is expected to favor her peer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).  You can fault the writers for turning Harrison into the good. straight-laced conscientious white executive, while making Stafford too much of a token (really a stereotype) for the prevailing norm of racism, both manifest and latent.

Several scenes got wide applause from viewers at the screening I attended.  One of those involves Harrison, who takes action when he realizes that Katherine has to walk—actually run and in high heels–half a mile just to get to a “Colored Ladies Bathroom.” “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he says, tearing down with his own hands the old but still acceptable restroom-segregation sign.

Other sub-stories are more routinely and schematically handled.  Mary has to go to court in order to get permission to take night courses, which are needed just to apply for an open job in engineering.

While impressively instructive and illuminating in relating a little known true story–about both the role of “colored” women and the Civil Rights movement, Hidden Figures may be too concerned with being ideologically inspirational and broadly entertaining–it’s film made for the entire family.

The filmmaking, by director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) is too conventional, mostly dwelling ion the basic facts.

In many ways, Hidden Figures feels and looks as it if was not only set in 1962, but also made in that year. Old-fashioned in every respect, it aims at reaching the masses, and it remains to be seen how the potentially large lay public would react.

Now that Warren Beatty’s passion project, Rules Don’t Apply, is both a critical and commercial flop, Fox is betting all its cards in a heavy marketing campaign for Oscar Gold.

So far, only the good Octavia Spencer, has scored with getting praise, having been nominated for Supporting Actress by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

But things may change on January 24, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its nominations in all categories.