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Some biographical dramas work hard to steer clear of sentimentality and then there are movies like "Hidden Figures," a well-polished gem of a movie that embraces its sentimental streak because the story it tells is so compelling.
The movie tells the true story (adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book) of three of the unknown heroes of America's race to outer space three African-American women whose accomplishments were easily lost in the racist and sexist atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius, relegated to the ranks of the computers the women, many of them black, who in the pre-computer days would perform the complex calculations needed to launch a rocket and bring its astronaut-pilot back safely to Earth.
Goble, a widow with three little girls, works at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. There she works with two friends, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
Racism may not be overt within the Langley facility, but it's present. When Dorothy applies to be manager of the computing unit a job she already has, in everything but title and pay level she is denied by a prim white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Mary feels it when she wants to become an engineer and is rejected because she doesn't have college credit, when the University of Virginia is whites-only. And Katherine is dismissed by the white male mathematicians (personified by Jim Parsons) who won't even share the same coffee pot with her.
The man in charge, Al Harrison (a composite character played by Kevin Costner), is mostly oblivious to the racial tension at Langley. His only interest is results, and when something impedes those results for example, when he learns Katherine has to run across the base to the only bathroom available for "colored" women he takes action.
Director Theodore Melfi ("St. Vincent"), who shares screenplay credit with first-timer Allison Schroeder, focuses on the day-to-day struggles and little triumphs of these three women. Melfi stages some big scenes like when Katherine, at the request of John Glenn (Glen Powell), double-checks the new IBM computer's calculations before his historic Mercury orbital flight but the real joys in the story come from small moments, like Katherine being romanced by an Air Force veteran, Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).
Melfi gives his three leading ladies a showcase for their talents, and the trio doesn't disappoint. Henson gives an understated performance, miles away from her flamboyance on TV's "Empire," determined to let Katherine's math skills prove her worth. Monáe shows her comic skills as the feisty Mary. And Spencer is wonderfully dignified as Dorothy, calmly responding to unspoken racism and sexism by delivering quiet competence.
"Hidden Figures" celebrates the achievements of these accomplished women, not only as pioneers in the space race but also as heroes battling obstacles big and small.
Three unsung heroes in the space race African- American women who crunched the numbers for NASA are celebrated in this true-life drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday.
Rating • PG for thematic elements and some language.
Running time • 127 minutes.