PEOPLE Review: Hidden Figures Turns History into Smart, Inspiring Entertainment

During the 1960s scramble to put an astronaut in orbit, a group of African-American female mathematicians worked behind the scenes at NASA, doing the complex calculations that sent Alan Shepard and John Glenn to space.

Sounds like a dull, dutiful history lesson? Think again.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe bring every ounce of their considerable charm to a script filled with humor and heart.

The movie conveys the injustice of discrimination — the women couldn't even go to the bathroom in the same building as white scientists — and the thrill of victory on a visceral, personal level.

Constantly pushing her glasses up her face, Henson plays groundbreaking mathematician Katherine Johnson (who in real life is 98 and still sharing her amazing story) as a ball of pent-up brilliance, frustration and can-do energy. Spencer does an excellent slow burn as Dorothy Vaughan, a computing supervisor who has to report to a condescending, less-qualified white woman (Kirsten Dunst). And Monáe crackles as Mary Jackson, who fights Jim Crow laws so she can become an aerospace engineer.

Kevin Costner, playing a tough but decent NASA boss, and Mahershala Ali, as a National Guard officer who woos Johnson, ace their supporting roles. That all-star cast helps Hidden Figures effortlessly achieve liftoff despite its payload of heavy topics — so it's truly as entertaining as it is educational.

Hidden Figures opens in wide release Jan. 6. The film is rated PG.

This Story Originally Appeared On People