Hidden Figures is the kind of winning biopic I can easily champion. It joins a film like Queen of Katwe from earlier this fall, in presenting a story I was not too informed about, with enough confidence to easily please those in search of a good story. The film does little to distance itself from other historical dramas of its nature, but a mainstream film like this that matches up well to the many other films about famous white men who overcame adversity is worth giving notice to. That this film accomplishes so much by focusing on smart women who prove themselves by being good at their work and kind is just a testament to a film that can make certain subjects so cinematically interesting.
During the time of The Right Stuff, which found the United States in a competition with the Soviet Union to get a man into space and rule supreme as far as spaceflight capability was concerned, many people were involved. This film puts focus on the black women who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division for NASA. Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Johnson, a mathematical genius who was instrumental in helping out with the calculations for Project Mercury during the early 1960s.
The film also features Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, another math expert who became the acting head of the West Area Computers. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician with eyes on becoming an aerospace engineer. As three friends living in a time when the fight for civil rights was still going on, it is the work they do and their reserved personalities amongst many who would rather chose to put them down that paves the way for this largely untold story to unfold.
While holding onto this sense of grace among their white coworkers and superiors, there is plenty of personality to see within each of these ladies. Once given different positions, the ladies are separate when working, but do have a good sense of chemistry between them when coming together on other occasions. Additionally, we learn just enough about their personal lives to know they are just regular people who face up against a lot of ignorance, but have not lost their sense of spirit. Henson’s Johnson gets the most character work, as we spend time with her family (she’s widowed with three daughters) and a possible new suitor played by Mahershala Ali.
Based on the novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures does well to balance the racial politics with the attempts by director Theordore Melfi (St. Vincent) to make intense math calculations visually exciting. Being an appropriately PG-rated film, the nastiness seen by various white people that go along with the segregation laws is enough to make the audience scoff in disgust and be further impressed by what we see our lead heroines go through. At the same time, the film plays up the moments of triumph for the various characters by simply having them perform their duty, without much in the way of expected rewards.
The film also knows how to handle what’s important. Kevin Costner has a supporting role as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group and it was quite worthwhile to see him be a man so past the concept of discrimination that he’s more surprised by what work is or isn’t done, rather than take notice of how Johnson is being treated differently by the other white men in his group. Jim Parsons’ Paul Stafford is among those who is forced to find a begrudging level of respect for what Johnson does. Meanwhile, an underplayed game of one-upmanship is seen between Spencer’s Vaughan and Kirsten Dunst as her supervisor, Vivian Jackson.
Lacking some of the elegance found in more nuanced screenplays, if Hidden Figures misses any marks, it comes from how precise some of the dialogue comes across at times. Having characters namecheck Brown v. Board, among other specific events, works as enough of an easy reason to make this film work on a universal level. I just wish the restraint found in certain characterizations could have been applied to how direct the dialogue is to better mask the biopic formula that is at play.
Less of an issue is the production values. There are some decent special effects combined with archival footage to deliver on having scenes of rockets heading into space, but much of the film is set in regular offices. Much like Apollo 13 however, Hidden Figures does well to find ways for the audience to be continually enthralled by characters working out complex math problems in tiny locations. There’s also a general sense of fluidity that matches the importance of the story with the lively soundtrack produced by Pharrell Williams, with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helping out with work on the score.
There is a great mesh of ideas at play seen throughout with Hidden Figures. It has the skeleton of many films you see about important individuals that made some sort of difference, but handles itself very well. The cast is uniformly good (even Costner), with Henson shining bright enough to have you separate her from the Cookie persona seen on TV’s Empire. That this film comes at a time when the country could use a lot more positive regard towards working together only helps when considering how well we watch this negotiation of math and racial politics. Do the math yourself and step up to watch this obscure bit of history come to life.