Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2016. Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment, Fox 2000 Pictures. Screenplay by Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Cinematography by Mandy Walker. Produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams. Music by Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer. Production Design by Wynn Thomas. Costume Design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Film Editing by Peter Teschner. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016.
The space race is a well documented period in American twentieth-century history, the project to get a man on the moon before the Russians could best the U.S.A. a second time one that had the government putting its best scientific minds together to make it happen. What has rarely been highlighted in the decades since John Glen became the first American sent successfully into orbit is that NASA had, among its employees, a room full of math geniuses who were also African American women, professionals who made great contributions to the agency’s projects while also enduring the degradation of separate bathrooms and water fountains. Three of them were gifted experts in their fields and this warm and wonderful feelgood biopic focuses on their accomplishments: aspiring engineer Janelle Monáe has to break through Virginia laws to attend the classes that will help her achieve her dream, computer expert Octavia Spencer wants to protect her career by learning about this new room-size IBM computer but has to skirt the library’s racial laws to do so, and child prodigy Taraji P. Henson has a talent for advanced mathematics that earns her Glen’s personal trust to send him off the planet and bring him back in one piece. There’s certainly a feeling of Hollywood manipulation to the way much of the movie plays out (Kevin Costner gives a superb, uncompromising performance but even he can’t pull off a line like announcing that all of NASA pees one colour without sounding like a bad greeting card), but for its few missteps in manipulation the film is fully inspired by the strength and intelligence of its characters while never downplaying the ugly realities of their society. Henson’s Katherine Goble (later Johnson) has to not only solve the hardest algebra problems you can think of but also has to walk half a mile every day to the one coloured-only bathroom at NASA’s Langley headquarters, surrounded by a room full of white-shirted, black-tied men who don’t match her brilliance but have the right to give her a separate coffee pot to drink from all the same. Director Theodore Melfi coaxes three brilliant performances from three already highly charismatic actors, highlighting that not only are the injustices they suffer a moral failing of their society but also a logical one as well: drawing life’s rules along racial lines means denying the nation access to some of its richest intellectual resources. It’s quite clear that the space race would not have been run without the participation of these protagonists, but Melfi does not pretend that the happy ending takes place in a better world either: watch Kirsten Dunst‘s tight smile or Kimberly Quinn‘s second-guessing her own feelings as they acknowledge their colleagues at the end of film, only at the beginning of their doubts about their own prejudices. Such restraint is what makes the less successful aspects of the movie (like Henson’s romance with Mahershala Ali, which is straight out of a TV movie) very easy to take, not to mention beautifully creating that early sixties, Epcot Center-JFK-Pan Am look that is so appealing, all for a fantastic tale about defying the odds.