Hidden Figures is not only an entertaining and heartfelt story, but an informative and important one as well, headlined by terrific performances and directed with tonal precision by Theodore Melfi.
It never ceases to amaze (or is it disappoint?) how the pages of history can be written by the discriminatory hand. Take the space race of the 1950s and 1960s between America and the Soviet Union. Upon a word association request, many would reference NASA, JFK, John Glenn, The Right Stuff and Sputnik. What many won’t think of is Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematician who played a vital part in putting a man on the Moon. She is also an African American woman and a Christian, who along with other African American women scientists and mathematicians at NASA, provided important and vital work, yet whose race and gender saw them segregated and uncredited, proving that even institutions of scientific progression aren’t immune to bigotry.
This is the set-up for Hidden Figures, an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, written and directed by Theordore Melfi. His debut film, the heartfelt dramedy St. Vincent, put him on the map. But it will be Hidden Figures that will give him big exposure and should land him nominations this award season for the stellar way he took this fact-based story and transferred it into illuminating and entertaining drama.
In a nod to contemporary race issues, the film opens with the three central characters, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), informal supervisor and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) questioned by a police officer as they tend to their broke down car. When they reveal that they work for NASA the police officer at first is stunned, then gung-ho supportive. The Soviets have just put Sputnik in space, and no segregation nor bigotry should stop America from regaining the lead in the space race.
Such is the mission of NASA, with pressure placed on Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, to double their efforts and get an American on the Moon to plant ol’ glory. An actor who excels in playing virtuous characters, Costner delivers one of his best turns as a man of no nonsense professionalism and determination to see America win the space race. To do so he needs the best and brightest minds, which he finds in Johnson who, despite dealing with segregated bathrooms, separate coffee jugs, the sneering of jealous and bigoted colleagues, and the struggles of being a single working parent, rises to the challenge.
Henson’s portrayal of Johnson’s genius and plight is of career best variety, embodying her character with humility, determination and unequalled intellect, pointy framed glasses sheltering eyes that have held back a thousand tears until finally, one day, she snaps when her professionalism is questioned. It is a brilliantly effective scene of rage against injustice, and should be that Oscar reel moment Henson deserves.
Great too is Spencer in her role as the frustrated supervisor who struggles with the professional ceiling placed above her, and especially Janelle Monae who brings a feisty wit and intelligence to a role that in lesser hand could be the thing of stereotype.
Many a challenge and injustice is faced by the women of Hidden Figures, and therein lies the juxtaposition: here is presented a time where human exploration and scientific ingenuity had reached new heights, where a nation had the stars within its grasp. Yet it couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see the shining lights already in their presence.
Time can do a lot of things. Often it can provide clarity on the ridiculous nature of prejudices that robbed many of their due, and correct the wrongs of the past with the hindsight of the present. Yes, Hidden Figures is a movie, yet it is a vitally important one. With the news of its high box-office undertaking, consider it one giant leap in correcting the record.