When Donald Trump repeatedly referred to "the good old days" during the presidential campaign, he was basically dog-whistling the 1960s setting of HIDDEN FIGURES, a space movie that celebrates science and math—the real stuff behind The Right Stuff—with a terrific ensemble cast, particularly the three sterling leads. Based on Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction book, it tells the little-known history of three African-American women's contributions to the space race at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The women are mathematicians consigned to the center's segregated West Area Computers division. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who was a child math prodigy in the backwoods of West Virginia, is now a widow with three kids of her own, thrust into the job of human computer for the all-white Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) oversees the all-black West division but longs for the dignity and recognition of being promoted to official supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to be an aerospace engineer, but she can't enroll in the all-white schools required for qualification.
Director Theodore Melfi's straightforward, feel-good approach has the whiff of a television movie. Despite the Jim Crow milieu, there's nary an N-word in this PG-rated presentation, likely to cast a net for the broadest audience possible. The endemic racism on display is more understated but no less insidious: the dismissive glares, the admonitions to "get along now" and "don't embarrass me." Harrison asks why Johnson's breaks are always so long, oblivious to the fact that the closest "colored" women's bathroom is half a mile away. "I have nothin' against y'all," says Vaughan's icy boss (Kirsten Dunst). "I know you probably believe that," Vaughan responds with a pursed smile.
Sexism proves just as virulent. Women are given a strict dress code that forbids jewelry except for a string of pearls, and there's no "protocol" for them to attend high-level planning meetings. Even Katherine's suitor, Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), is surprised NASA would give women jobs that are so "taxing."
Yet all three women persevere, breaking down barriers by making themselves indispensable. Jackson convinces a judge to let her attend night classes at an all-white community college. Vaughan teaches herself the Fortran language necessary to operate the center's new IBM mainframe. And Johnson's math genius figures highly in the Project Mercury spaceflight program and John Glenn's Mercury 6 orbital flight.
It's an oversimplification to say Hidden Figures is only about the indignities of racism and sexism. Melfi unsubtly makes the case that the Soviet Union's early space-race successes were the result of its seeming unity, while social fractures slowed America down until after the advances of the civil rights movement. The film argues that America is great when it embraces and incorporates its multicultural society rather than erecting barriers that stifle innovation and ostracize a deep reservoir of diverse talent.
All year, commentators have sought anti-Trump themes in films as varied as Rogue One, Moana, and Captain America: Civil War. On the eve of the inauguration, Hidden Figures provides the best example of, and argument for, building bridges instead of walls.