In its infancy, the concept of a NASA computer was totally different from what it is now. Back in the late 50's and early 1960's computers were highly skilled mathematicians who calculated and recalculated thousands of math problems all day. If you take a tour of either of the NASA facilities, they briefly tell you about these human computers who were then replaced by the IBM computers.


As children whenever we watched one of the launchings, the news coverage often showed the roomful of engineers and scientists surrounded by walls of computers that monitored every facet of the program. What they didn't show you is how they got to that point when computers took over.


Theodore Melfi takes a look at the little known fact that a great many of those human calculators were African American and the most notable was Katherine Johnson who was a math prodigy at a very young age. (The new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated in May 2016 at the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.)

Melfi casts Taraji P. Henson in the lead as Johnson, in the film she is a widow with three girls and friends with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who are also human computers. They are assigned to the Colored Computing department with Vaughan acting as supervisor.


At the time Virginia was still as segregated as any other southern state and the segregation carried over into the NASA facility. Though Vaughan was acting supervisor, she was not official and answered to a white supervisor played convincingly by Kirsten Dunst. Needing a new computer who understood analytical geometry in the Flight Research department, Vaughan recommended Johnson as the best.


Her appearance in the all white male division was awkward at best, but Katherine makes do with the situation and begins to prove her value...at least to the division director Al Harrison (played by Kevin Kostner). But Jim Crow is still strong and her new co-workers make sure her life is far from comfortable.

Mary Jackson, still with the Colored computers is assigned to help out in the engineering division where she longs to become a full fledged engineer. Unfortunately, she does not have the newest credentials required and those classes are only offer at the local all-white school. Her story is about her struggle to get the right to take the needed classes and become a NASA engineer.


Vaughan's story is at first her struggle to become the official supervisor of the colored computing division since she is already doing the work. Her story then changes as she discovers NASA's plans to begin using an IBM mainframe computer to replace all the human computers. Her tete-a-tetes with Dunst's character are priceless and typical of what we've come to expect from Spencer.


Kostner is yet again cast as a savior-in-waiting as he was in "Black Or White", "McFarland" and "The Bodyguard". He provides a serviceable performance that contributes to the flow of the story.


What doesn't work is the extended amount of time Melfi spends on the budding romance between Johnson and her new beau Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). While it's nice that she met a guy [with whom she is still married], that time would have been better used broadening Vaughan and Jackson's characters. We learn about Johnson's background and education, but not the other two who would also go on to be significant figures with NASA.


Melfi drifts from telling a compelling story of human achievement in the face of social obstacles to presenting a more salable romantic drama before returning to telling of

the mission. The romantic aspect should have been drastically downsized.


"Hidden Figures' is a well acted, encouraging true story of a little known aspect of critical African American involvement in the NASA space program. However, director Theodore Melfi spends far too much time playing up a non-essential romance backstory, rather than sticking with the drama of the space race.   -- GEOFF BURTON