HIDDEN FIGURES (USA/PG/127mins)
Directed by Thoedore Melfi. Starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons
THE PLOT:
In 1960s Virginia, when segregation was still very much in effect, three African American women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) not only defied expectations and rules, but helped NASA with the mathematics to launch the first successful US space missions.
THE VERDICT: Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and nominated for three Oscars, ‘Hidden Figures’ is a worthy and groundbreaking story, told in a light, engaging and almost frothy manner that not only makes the film engaging and utterly entertaining, but feels old fashioned in the very best of ways.
Taraji P. Henson leads the cast as the smart, tenacious and reserved Katherine Johnson. Henson makes the character the least outspoken of the three lead women, but makes her story engaging and enthralling. The audience knows from the start that Katherine is a woman more than capable of the mathematics to get a man into space, but she is stymied by her race and her gender. Henson makes sure that Katherine is just outspoken and tenacious enough to be taken seriously, without making her brash or abrasive. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, supervisor of the “Coloured Computers” in everything but pay, and makes the character respectful but firm, with an eye for detail and opportunities. Janelle Monáe rounds out the central trio as the outspoken, funny and kind Mary Jackson. The rest of the cast features Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell and Jim Parsons.
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s screenplay is based on a true story, which was explored in Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race”. The screenplay keeps the story moving nicely, while bringing in just enough historical context to understand the political state of Virginia and the rest of the US at the time. The three central women struggle to be given respect and equal rights throughout the film, which is infuriating, but thrilling when tenacity and knowledge win the day. There is a feel that the three central characters are slightly stereotypical – the studious one, the older, stern one, and the loud sassy one – but the three actresses manage to make these attributes part of their characters rather than their defining traits, and save the film from parody.
As director Theordore Melfi makes ‘Hidden Figures’ a light film with a deep message, and the instances of segregation and disrespect throughout the film only serve to underline he battles that these women were tirelessly fighting. As mentioned, enough historical context is given to understand that 1961 was a time of unrest in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement across the USA, but this is not the focus of the film, even as it informs and underlines the tenacity and courage of the women whose story it is. The film is well paced and engaging, and Melfi has coaxed engaging and subtle performances from his cast.
In all, ‘Hidden Figures’ – which of course refers to the maths and the fact that African American women were, and often still are, overlooked – is a light look at the life’s, choices and tenacity of three women that not only changed the Space Race, but made strides forward here on the ground.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Hidden Figures relates a true, little-known story about the 1960s Space Race, when America was desperately trying to overtake Russia, who were the first country to place a man in space. It’s also a story of a certain time in American history, when gender and race were obstacles – ones that could be overcome though.

    Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a maths genius who works as a computor in NASA, along with friends Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae). Dorothy manages the section but is denied the title of supervisor by her snooty, unsypathetic boss Vivian (Kirsten Dunst). Mary dreams of being an engineer, but needs the qualifications to do so. However, that means challenging Virginia’s segregation laws between white people and African-Americans. Katherine is drafted into the heart of the space programme, to help out with rocket science problems that are troubling boss Al (Kevin Costner) and his mostly white, male team. Feeling like a fish out of water initially, Katherine earns her place and the respect of her peers through her unique approach to maths. All three women will become vital cogs in the machine that will launch astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space…

    Adapted from the Margot Lee Shetterly book by Allison Schroeder and writer/director Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures is a delightful, feel-good film which is honest about the time it was set in, but doesn’t feel the need to overstate it either. Like Loving recently, Virginia’s racist laws from another time are put under the spotlight. However, it’s more of an undercurrent here – like the ‘coloured’ coffee pot that Katherine finds herself having to use, or having to travel a distance to use a different bathroom. Gender is also a factor here, as women like Katherine are barred from attending confidential briefings. It’s to Melfi’s credit that the film doesn’t become politicised. If anything, the film is more about teamwork and how accepting others, whatever their gender or race, is crucial to success. As Al says at one point ‘we get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.’

    The performances are ideally attuned to the working environment of the early 1960s, getting across the frustration of the three women in progressing through the ranks of NASA. Henson, Spencer and Monae all give forthright but good-natured performances, emphasising their important contribution as well as their independent, humourous spirits. These are women who overcame barriers, much like the astronauts they worked on launching into space. Costner lends some gravitas and reason, while Dunst overcomes her tricky role to come across as open-minded later on. Melfi’s direction is strong and paints a colourful picture of these likeable and plucky women. There’s much to enjoy in Hidden Figures. It will certainly leave a smile on your face over the end credits as a neglected chapter of history finally comes to light. ****