Hidden Figures (4 stars)

Hidden Figures

Inspiring story of three pioneering African-American women, starring Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer

Nominated for three Oscars, Hidden Figures is the true story of the forgotten mathematicians behind the NASA space programme. That these overlooked boffins were African-American women makes this biopic from Theodore Melfi (St Vincent) extra intriguing – particularly given the recent outcry over the lack of racially diverse stories.

This adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's book is a well-crafted, character-driven drama that has plenty of pep and commercial appeal but that handles its racially-segregated backdrop with sensitivity. In truth, it's just as much about sexism in the workplace: this trio of heroines all struggle to get their voices heard.

Beginning in 1961, at NASA's Virginia HQ, centre-stage is Taraji P Henson's Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson), a maths genius plucked from the computer room to work with those calculating rocket trajectories. While she's not even permitted to use the building's whites-only bathroom, her friends fare little better – with unacknowledged supervisor Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and aspiring engineer Mary (Janelle Monáe) respectively denied promotion and training rights.

The leads are wonderful and the supporting cast is rich with talent too, including Kirsten Dunst and The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as ignorant NASA employees who perpetuate the racist status quo. But Melfi and his co-writer Allison Schroeder are careful not to brand all the women's Caucasian co-workers as villains. Kevin Costner, playing Al Harrison – Goble's 'colour-blind' boss, and a man desperate to send America into space before the Russians – is superb in a role he was simply born to play.

There's also a brief appearance from rising star Glen Powell as astronaut hero John Glenn – who died recently, and is portrayed with dignity. Although this is emphatically the story of the hard-fought and groundbreaking achievements of three incredible women, by its finale, Hidden Figures goes beyond its civil rights backdrop to emerge as an inspirational story about collective triumph. That if we all work together, regardless of race or gender, the impossible can be achieved.

General release from Fri 17 Feb.

Hidden Figures

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • US
  • 2h 7min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Theodore Melfi
  • Cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

The true story of the African-American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch its first successful space missions, despite institutionalised segregation in the workplace. The leads are wonderful and it’s an inspiring story about collective triumph.