Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history to which most of us knew nothing of.
Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program.
We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monea). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.
Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.
There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to attend the college that offers the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we see how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.
The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.
The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even works in some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.