Review: “Hidden Figures”

5 out of 5 stars.

There are a lot of stories lurking in the shadows of history, just waiting for someone to come along and tell them.  We all know about the Space Race, and astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to circle the Earth.  But the film “Hidden Figures” tells a side of the story that you didn’t learn in school, and even though it’s set in the 1960s, it couldn’t be more timely.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, “Hidden Figures” opens in 1961 Virginia.  The story follows three main characters who work as computers at NASA headquarters.  But despite their hard work and their brilliant minds, these characters have everything against them; they are women working in a male-dominated industry, and they’re African American women at that.  There’s the smart-talking Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who wants to be an engineer but isn’t allowed to take the required courses as they are only offered at a whites-only school.  Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is doing the work of a supervisor but not the pay or benefits to reflect that.  But the film is primarily about Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a child prodigy who is asked to work with the team that’s trying to win the Space Race against Russia by launching a man—John Glenn, played by Glen Powell—into space.  As Ms. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), the woman who oversees the “colored computers” division tells her, they have never had a black person work in that room before, and the racism Katherine faces, particularly from head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), is immediate and relentless.

Eventually, the characters all overcome their obstacles, with Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) finally giving Katherine a chance to show what she can do, and she becomes an integral part of calculating the figures needed to not only safely launch Glenn into space, but bring him back down again.  As gratifying as that payoff is, this movie is every bit as much a story about civil and women’s rights as it is about the Space Race, and while there’s the big victory at the end, it’s really the little victories the women make along the way that resonate the most, as the film delves into the discrimination they face both at work and in their personal lives.  Some of the obstacles they face are big things; some of them are little things that add up to big things.  Dorothy is kicked out of a library because the “colored” section doesn’t have the book she’s looking for.  Mary has to go to court to convince the judge to allow her to attend school.  And Katherine has to race a half mile to and from the restroom multiple times a day, because there isn’t a colored ladies room on the side of the NASA campus where the Space Task Group is located.  Watching these characters not only endure these things, but also overcome them with dignity, quickly endears them to the viewer, and makes the film that much more empowering.

Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)

It helps that the cast is terrific across the board.  Henson flawlessly portrays her character’s arc from low-key and rather subservient to defiant, confident, and unafraid to stand up for herself.  There’s no one supporting character who steals scenes, because they’re all so good in their own way, with Spencer and Monae (who between this and “Moonlight” is looking to have a pretty solid acting career ahead of her if she continues to pursue it) delivering equal amounts of sass, humor, and heart.  Costner is very good as the hard director who gradually softens to Katherine, while Parsons and Dunst play the sort of characters we love to hate—and yet despite their initial misgivings, they eventually come around, to an extent.  Mahershala Ali, current Oscar front-runner for “Moonlight,” also appears in this film as Jim Johnson, the former Army colonel who courts and eventually marries Katherine over the course of the film (at the start, Katherine’s first husband has passed away, leaving her with three young daughters).

Melfi does a great job balancing all the different parts of this movie without them overshadowing each other.  He imbues the action with a sense of urgency through montages and cross-cutting between characters, but also allows it to slow and let the actors take over at all the right moments.  Most importantly, he never lets what is essentially typical biopic fare ever feel like typical biopic fare.  It’s well-told, well-acted, cleverly scripted, and stumbles but never completely falls into the clichés of the genre.

But as I mentioned before, “Hidden Figures” is also very timely.  It stands out from similar civil rights era biopics because it seems to be more in tune with the current mood of society in terms of Black Lives Matter and equal rights for women.  There are many lines from the movie that could easily be reframed for modern times, but there’s one exchange in particular that stands out.  As they exchange small talk in the ladies room, Ms. Mitchell says to Dorothy that she doesn’t have anything against “them,” to which Dorothy replies, “I am sure you believe that.”  As glorious a clap-back as it is, it’s a sobering moment recognizing the amount of unconscious discrimination that not only went on back then, but continues in full force today.

Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated PG.

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