Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Loosely based on actual events, Hidden Figures tells the story of three ground-breaking African-American women working as mathematicians at NASA during the early years of the space race.
With the Soviets having launched the first satellite into orbit, NASA’s Space Task Group is struggling to catch up, but they have ambitious plans to launch a manned space mission. This film follows three real life figures that were part of the segregated West Area Computers division (which at this period in time referred to a human “calculator” rather than an electronic device). Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) a computer helping with the cutting edge mathematics of the Space Task Group, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) an aspiring Engineer who must find a way to meet perquisites offered at a “whites only college”, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) a temporary supervisor that sees how a new machine from IBM might be the shape of things to come. Each woman faces an uphill battle from racial and gender discrimination, but each attempts to provide a significant contribution to the space program.
Hidden Figures does everything you would expect of a prestigious American biopic, which is both it’s strength and the one major complaint against this film. So it is overtly patriotic, prone to over-sentimentality, and often reliant on a sweeping score to provide emotional cues to the audience. Hidden Figures is neither innovative or ground-breaking in its presentation. The heck of it is, it’s also an excellent example of the genre. With slick production values, fine performances and an extraordinarily interesting story (three actually) it adds up to a great film.
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) achieves that amazing act of balancing popularist entertainment, with a great historical story. Running the space race parallel to an exploration of growing civil rights (and the real effects that it was having on people’s lives), it certainly captures the progressive spirit of the era. It also does a fantastic job of exploring casual racism and the obstacles placed in the way of certain groups (both Black and Women in this case). We rarely see blatant overt racism, but rather that which is so ingrained into a culture as to be almost imperceptible to those that are unaffected by it (although with the benefit of a modern perspective – glaringly obvious). Hidden Figures makes a plaintive call for empathy and understanding, rather than just supporting the status quo, and clearly demonstrates the merit. As one character puts it, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.”
An ensemble cast, really launches this into the stratosphere. Henson, Spencer and Monae are excellent as the three main protagonists, having a dynamic and playful chemistry with each other. The few scenes they are all together really shine, adding a playful element to the three serious stories. Kevin Costner gives one of the best performances he has in years, as the inspirational (but fictional) head of the Space Task Group. As does Kirsten Dunst, in a rather unflattering role demonstrative of the institutionalised racism.
Smart, funny, emotional, informative (although take with a grain of salt over historical accuracy), and entertaining. Hidden Figures hits it’s launch window and manages to soar.