Henson, Spencer, and Monáe's stellar performances propel this feel-good biographical drama that teaches audiences about a little-known aspect of NASA's history. Many Civil Rights-era stories are understandably upsetting, showing the unflinchingly ugly institutional racism that African Americans had to endure. But Hidden Figures remains a crowd-pleaser because the main characters, while faced with insidious day-to-day discrimination (segregated bathrooms, offices, libraries, schools), don't endure the kind of horrific violence depicted in Selma. The three stars are all fantastic, with Henson clearly enjoying playing genius, widowed mother Katherine. Spencer is, as usual, spot on as the focused Dorothy, who's determined to make sure her group doesn't lose their jobs once the "real" computers arrive. And Monae impresses with another memorable supporting turn (she also shines in Moonlight). The movie's minor antagonists include Kirsten Dunst as Mrs. Michael, the head of all the human computers, who acts condescendingly toward Dorothy and her team, and Jim Parsons as task force supervisor Paul Stafford, who's unhappy that his boss wants all his figures checked by a black woman.
The friendship between the three leads is the heart of the story, but the action favors Katherine, who's working directly with the team that launches Glenn into orbit. Her extraordinary abilities as a mathematician earn her Al Harrison's trust, top-secret clearance, and a chance to be there when key decisions are made. Audiences may wonder what was fictionalized for the adaptation and whether Glenn was really as open-minded, gracious, and flirtatious as he's portrayed in the movie. Regardless of which details might be the result of a little creative license, the pre-credits tribute picturing the real Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson make it clear that Hidden Figures is a story that needed to be told -- and it's told in a triumphant manner.