Director: Theodore Melfi
Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some language.)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment, Fox 2000 Pictures, and 20th Century Fox.
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi; adapted from the novel “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly.
First things first: Kudos to all involved for bringing Hidden Figures to the big screen and shame on everyone who taught us history. There is no reason why we should just be learning of this remarkable story.
Now, with that out of the way…
We find ourselves in a year rich with powerful African-American films, stories and themes which have finally found a place in our movie-going consciousness in ways previously unseen. Joining an impressive list of films from 2016, which includes Fences, Moonlight, Loving, 13th, O.J.: Made in America, Queen of Katwe and more, Theodore Melfi’s story of three black women who worked behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960s, helping orchestrate the formulas and breakthroughs needed to help America reach outer space, is significant, important, and something we need to be talking about.
Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Goble, a genius mathematician who works at West Computing Group in Langley, Hampton, Virginia, along with more than 20 other “computers” – African-American women who run numbers and calculate formulas and assist NASA’s research teams in any way they can. She works alongside her best friends, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The year is 1961, and the “colored computers” find themselves segregated from the rest of NASA’s workers, in a time when riding in the back of the bus and having to use “colored bathrooms” was the norm. For a facility like Langley, this could mean that a person of color would have to run as far as a half-mile just to use the bathroom.
When together, the women exhibit great confidence and infectious camaraderie, but we soon realize they have grown weary in their jobs. Dorothy is being used as a supervisor for the West folks, but her request to be compensated for such work falls on the deaf ears of her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Mary is observant and sees her opportunities for advancement stifled. And so, in turn, she forces the issue and seeks consideration for an engineering position opening up at the facility. Upon learning that the school she would need further training at is a whites-only school, she forces the issue and takes her case before a judge to appeal the school’s discriminatory policies.
Let’s remember, these women were not just fighting against racism, they were also fighting sexism. Opportunities simply did not exist for women on the NASA floor. Each would make inroads in breaking down those barriers. Mary would eventually become the first black female engineer in NASA’s history while Dorothy led the first NASA group to mix race and gender on the same team. For Katherine, her mathematical prowess and intelligence led to her becoming the first woman ever recognized as a co-author of a research report.
Admittedly, Hidden Figures relies on something of an episodic approach in telling its story and hits some moments a little too square on the nose. However, Melfi infuses this story with the grace and determination it needs, deftly handling a number of subplots and emotional components to a story that never sells out or compromises in doing things in a family-friendly way.
To the testament of Henson, Spencer, and Monáe however, their bond makes this such a delightful movie experience. These women are instant heroes in our eyes, and rightfully so.
Interestingly, the original songs from multiple-time Grammy-winner and Oscar-nominated songwriter Pharrell Williams offer a modern sound, blending in rhythms and beats from the time period in an attempt to make the soundtrack bridge the gap between then and now. Subtle, yet effective, Williams and Melfi use musical cues to illustrate that these stories are timeless.
On the undercard, Kevin Costner is pretty great as a Kevin Costner-style workaholic. Playing a composite of several characters, Melfi entrusts him as Al Harrison, the stressed out director overseeing the Space Task Group and burdened with getting America into space as quickly as possible onceRussia sends Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Romantic subplots arrive, and they are predictable I guess but enhanced admirably by Aldis Hodge, playing Mary’s husband, and especially from Mahershala Ali, a loving and earnest partner for Katherine who embraces her and her three children as if they are all his own.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures may look past some difficult realities these women faced but tells a compelling story. Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder remind us that we are not that far removed from a time when “colored bathrooms”, a segregated workforce and all-white schools, even “whites only” coffee pots were a fabric of our society. Of course, that begs the thought that perhaps we should really question how far we have actually come when it took us until 2015 and 2016 for the stories of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary to even make the front page in the first place.
Yes, at times this movie feels like Oscar bait. In other moments, it exhibits profound power and thoughtfulness. Hidden Figures gives us three people who changed the world, and did so while being marginalized as something lesser or “other.”
Without Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s calculations, their resolve, intelligence, and fierce dedication to their work, as well as their steadfast refusal to give in to the challenges around them, John Glenn would not have become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Their story of Hidden Figures makes for a wonderfully fair and reasoned film, one that audiences should embrace and tell friends and family about.
Honestly, we kind of need this movie right now.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- This is great for the whole family. Rousing, inspiring, and insightful, Hidden Figures could be a late bloomer in this year’s Oscar race.
- The performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are wonderful, serving a great complement to one another and in perfect pitch with Melfi’s vision in telling this true story.
- We need to know this story. We need to understand this history. We need to unearth more and more stories of how African-Americans and persons of color made huge impacts on our evolution and advancement as a nation. Hidden Figures should make you furious that we are only just learning about these women’s stories and then rejoice in what they accomplished.
- For more stuffy viewers, Hidden Figures does play things a little safe to fit inside a snug PG rating, and doesn’t go as far or as edgy as some would like.
- Naysayers will feel like the construct of the movie is pure Oscar bait, and there are elements of the film that certainly lend itself to that criticism. I would argue that we have never had a movie with these optics, telling this story, and that is a false equivalency to other films, but hey…I’m just one guy here.
- I really have nothing else. This is a great movie. If you’re looking for a third reason to not see this movie, you’ve wasted your time and should just buy your tickets now. You won’t be disappointed.