Hidden Figures | Theodore Melfi | December 25, 2016/January 6, 2017
It’s astounding (if somewhat depressing) that a movie set over fifty years ago is so relevant today.
Hidden Figures tells the untold true story of the women of color who made America’s first manned space flight possible. We follow three women – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – working as “computers” for a segregated NASA in the early 1960s in Virginia. Despite incredible skill in their respective disciplines, they struggle to advance in a world not accepting of the color of their skin or their gender.
The three actresses portraying these women turn in phenomenal performances; their chemistry with each other is electric. The friendship between them feels very real, and by the end, we as the audience are strongly rooting for them to succeed. There’s a strong supporting cast, as well; Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are both strong as the condescending, racist supervisors, and Mahershala Ali (who seems to be having an excellent year with Moonlight and Luke Cage) has a sweet, understated performance as Johnson’s love interest. Kevin Costner also does well as the salty, yet supportive boss. Though all of these supporting roles do feel like stock characters at times, the actors do a good job of giving them dimension.
For a story which features the dry concept of math as a key plot point, Hidden Figures never leaves the audience feeling bogged down with too much technical jargon. There’s a great sequence at the start which shows the young Katherine doing math problems, and the numbers and shapes she sees become animated and illuminated through CGI, showing us how alive they are to her; it’s almost magical. The movie deals very heavily with racism, but also tackles sexism in very subtle ways. When Costner tells his employees they will need to work late, he advises them all to call their “wives”, never acknowledging that Katherine is in the crowd he is addressing.
This movie not only tells a true historical story (it’s honestly a tragedy that we’re learning about these women through this movie and not from our history books – even with a few small changes for the sake of the story), it tells a story which rings true to our daily reality. Pharrell’s modern, joyfully infectious music with a ’60s feel helps reinforce this. In a time when people of color and women are still facing adversity at all societal levels, this is a story we need to hear. Hopefully, as more people see the film, the women who helped build America’s space program will no longer be hidden from our history.