You don’t expect a ‘60s Civil Rights drama (with a side order of feminism) to resonate in such a contemporary way. Yet this pleasingly unexceptional film does just that. (At the same time, along with this year’s FENCES and LOVING, also giving a swift kick in the pants to clueless commentators blathering on about today’s ‘worse then ever’ racial attitudes.) A fact-inspired story about the largely unsung Black female math specialists who worked for the early space program in Virginia under conditions of strict segregation both within and without the base. The story, cleverly structured to show how the walls broke down on different schedules inside & out, focuses on three remarkable gal pals, one hoping to move up to engineering, one in charge of a staff of ‘computer girls,’ and Taraji P. Henson in the glamour spot as the natural talent too gifted to be held back from the theoretical math of space flight programming. In a story arc as predictable & comforting as your Great Aunt’s holiday dinner, the emphasis on Henson is a bit of a misstep, since the strongest drama comes out of the introduction of an IBM MainFrame computer and its galvanizing effect on Octavia Spencer & her staff of possibly obsolete computer girls* which gets shortchanged. Director Theodore Melfi fights off a few rookie missteps (a blackboard POV shot?), but also has the smarts to find a lifetime of injustice in the simple juxtaposition of ‘separate-but-equal’ coffee percolators. (Though how much better if he hadn’t pointed it out to us.) And the vivid KodaChrome look of the exteriors makes for a nice period touch.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Who cast the lean-faced, thick-haired John Glenn? Balding men of America demand an answer!
DOUBLE-BILL: No Blacks and No NASA Women, but Philip Kaufman’s Mercury Space Program epic, THE RIGHT STUFF (which includes a properly hair-challenged Glenn) just keeps looking better & better. OR: *For a cautionary comedy on IBM MainFrame computers, try Tracy & Hepburn in DESK SET/’57.