Hidden Figures Review
By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)
Hidden Figures proudly portrays girl power in the highest degree.
The film tells the story of three African-American women working at NASA in the 1960s who were instrumental in the space program and whose stories haven’t been told until now. It’s a powerful story simply told – director Theodore Melfi isn’t reinventing the wheel through the script he also co-wrote with Allison Schroeder which is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. But that doesn’t mean the storytelling isn’t effective and the three main actresses portraying these real-life heroes give utterly moving performances.
Tajari P. Henson plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a math prodigy and arguably the central character. Most recently known for her role as Cookie on Empire, Henson plays opposite that and shows off her range as an actress, proving she’s not all flashy clothes and family drama. She’s sweet, but also retains a bit of a no-nonsense, get-stuff-done personality, continuing her trend of playing strong women. Katherine is reassigned from the computing room to the team that will calculate the launch and orbit trajectory for the Atlas rocket. She receives a cold welcome from her co-workers, particularly Jim Parsons’ Paul Stafford, stunning them when she dares to pour herself a cup of coffee from the communal pot. But Katherine proves herself worthy, impressing her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and eventually astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) when he personally asks for her to verify his orbit calculations.
Already a Golden Globe nominee for her performance, Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughn, who supervises the team at the West Computing Building, though is denied the title and pay that should come with the job. She decides to do something about it and teaches herself (and later her team) how to use NASA’s new giant IBM computer so their roles are not dismantled in the changing world of new technology, later impressing and earning the respect of former boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).
Though Janelle Monae has not done much acting, she shines as Mary Jackson, on course to become NASA’s first female black engineer. To achieve that goal and to merely apply for the job, she has to go to court to petition her right to take physics night classes at a local segregated school. Her monologue in appealing to the judge is powerful and shows she has the chops to launch an acting career as successful as her music one.
The film even takes a little time to explore its heroines’ personal lives, including Katherine’s romance with army man Jim Johnson, terrifically played by Mahershala Ali and who is also earning rave reviews for his role in Moonlight. Minus an initial misstep by Jim, causing the two to get off on the wrong foot, theirs is an uncomplicated and straightforward love, which are adjectives that could also describe the movie as a whole.
Hidden Figures depicts the casual racism of the time with candid honesty, because what Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary face isn’t vicious, its just shown as the way of life and the reason they have to work that much harder to pursue their dreams and live normal lives. The white people aren’t necessarily shown as being great just because they decided to become decent and understanding human beings – though the scene where Costner sledgehammers down the “colored” bathroom sign did feel a little white savior-y – but their frank behavior, and in some instances subsequent acceptance of their black co-workers, will hopefully leave white audiences more cognizant of the challenges black people faced then and continue to face in today’s society.
Hidden Figures may take place in a time where people, not the machines as we know them today, were still referred to as computers and proves those human contributions are still the most important kind. It’s an earnest film, feel-good and crowd-pleasing, but not corny, and got genuine cheers from the audience with whom I saw it. Katherine Johnson is now 98 and has lived long enough to see a NASA research facility named after her and seeing this film will make you grateful she gets to see her story and that of her fellow scientific pioneers being told as well.