Hidden Figures review
Hidden Figures is an easy film to be snarky about. If we ran it through my highly scientific, and not in any way arbitrary Oscar-Bait-Rating™ the results would be mind-blowing. A true story, a historically significant subject, racial and gender oppression, big speeches, and impassioned performances. Yes indeed, it would be very easy to be super cynical about Hidden Figures. But it is just so utterly bloody delightful, this uplifting drama can’t fail to entertain.
Set in the early 1960s, the film tells the story of three African-American women who work at NASA as aerospace mathematicians during the Space Race. The aeronautical calculations they provide are absolutely critical to the Space Program, however, as black women in 60s America, they are segregated and overlooked, whilst their white male colleagues take the credit for their accomplishments. The main story arc belongs to Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) the quiet genius, pulled from the pool of human computers, and thrust into the big show – the all-white, all-male team responsible for sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
The two sub-plots see NASA engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) battling the system to enrol in a segregated college in order to progress her career, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who after being constantly overlooked for promotion, takes the initiative and makes herself an integral part of NASA’s future. Monae and Spencer are both terrific as these dignified women trying to succeed in such an undignified era of US history.
It is in Katherine’s story however where the greatest indignities are laid bare, and the greatest resolve is shown. Her name cannot be added to research papers she has authored. She cannot pour herself a coffee from the shared pot. She cannot attend briefings where her input is required. And most humiliatingly of all, she cannot use the bathroom in her building as it is Whites Only. The nearest bathroom she can use is a 20 minute jog across campus. When her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) finally opens his eyes to what his best mathematician is going through, it leads to one of the film’s most memorable and cathartic moments. Yes there’s a whiff of white saviour about it, but Costner makes it work. It’s not about him taking a stand. It’s about what he represents (white America) finally waking up.
The rest of the supporting cast don’t quite have the same impact, lumbered with two-dimensional characters that exist just to stand in the way of our heroines. Kirsten Dunst is poorly served as Dorothy’s supervisor, a liberal-but-not-really, who keeps the coloured girls in their place. Elsewhere, Jim Parsons’ one-note turn as a nippy nerd brings nothing to the party.
Director Theodore Melfi keeps the tone light and accessible, even when dealing with the serious subject matter. It shares similar DNA to The Help in that regard, and fans of that film will find a lot to love in Hidden Figures. There’s nothing particularly challenging about Hidden Figures, it’s just a good old-fashioned story, told extremely well.