Hidden Figures (2016)

Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder & Theodore Melfi

There has been quite a bit of attention paid to both women and people of color in film in recent years. One only needs to go back to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign from last year which arose to bring awareness to the lack of African American representation in awards season. There are many ways to argue either for or against this sentiment, but the fact remains that the lack of representation, no matter how severe, was enough to bring about a social outcry. The industry has come a long way in recent years, but that is also not to say it has “made it” to where it needs to be. The same thing can be said for women in the industry. And while this film is not directed by a woman, or an African American, Hidden Figures goes a long way in celebrating the role of both in NASA’s achievements, and it affords numerous women and African American’s to showcase their talents. Hollywood needs more movies like this to be honest.

NASA’s space program in the early 1960s was just starting to get off the ground to compete with the Soviets, who were already seemingly lightyears ahead of the Americans. As leader of the Space Task group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) cracks the whips of his engineers, led by Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). When he needs a new computer, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is assigned from the group of African American mathematicians on staff. Goble is initially met with disdain and faces difficulty until she can prove her worth in the group attempting to put a man in space safely. Other women from the group, led by Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who, despite her responsibilities, finds it difficult to gain the title of supervisor, also work to advance their status within NASA but find hurdles along the way, like Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who dreams of being an engineer only to face segregation laws which prevent her from fulfilling her dream, despite her abilities.

With three intersecting and related stories of three strong willed, brave, and extremely bright women at NASA during a time when civil rights were still being fought for and segregation was still prevalent in states like Virginia, where NASA was headquartered, there is a lot to pack into this powerful and inspiring film. But the filmmakers manage it all seemlessly. By leaning on Katherine Goble and her story, Hidden Figures has the focus necessary to handle the story while also allowing Henson to shine in the role. Meanwhile, the stories of both Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are given enough play for them to feel like fully invested players in the story being told. Goble’s contributions to the space program, at least around this time, may have been more valuable, which is why she gets the starring role, but the film definitely does not underplay the accomplishments and contributions of Vaughan and Jackson either, striking a beautiful balance.

And for as socially important and impactful as the story truly is, the film also manages to be sweet, endearing, and at times very funny. These were real women and the screenplay and actresses infuse them with such life. Henson, as I mentioned is wonderful, as is Spencer, per usual, but Janelle Monae was the actress that turned my head with her portrayal of Mary Jackson. She had such a verve and on screen charisma that it was infectious. She demanded to be watched and could very well become a star of the screen. But the three of them together is especially fun. While the three stories may not have been intertwined in real life as much as they are here, by making them close friends in the film, it allows for plenty of special moments between the three women.

What the film does best, perhaps, is to craft these soaring, crowd-pleasing moments. Sometimes these types of moments can appear put-on and merely pandering to the audience, but here, they feel more natural. The other side of this coin, as a white male viewer, I couldn’t help but feel a few “pat on the back” moments as well, those look at how we aided advancement, look at how we weren’t racist. Luckily, these moments are few and far between, and often downplayed simply because of the power of these women’s stories, and the tremendous ensemble performance from the cast. Hidden Figures is everything this type of movie should be. It’s crowd pleasing, it’s inspiring, and it’s also darn entertaining.

***1/2 – Great


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