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. ****

  • emerb

    “Hidden Figures” is a triumphant and heart-warming movie based on real life characters in the 1960s – three remarkable and brilliant black female mathematicians who were employed by NASA in the Computers Division at the Langley Research Center to help crunch crucial data for the first space missions. Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, the picture is buoyant and inspiring. It shares with us a little-known chapter of history which is both enjoyable and intriguing.
    Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her colleagues Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are three African-American women who grew up in the segregated American South. They are mathematically very gifted and work at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the precursor to NASA, in the 1940s and 50s. They are employed as computers (the organization’s term for employees who did low-level calculations) but their skills go unnoticed and their work is undervalued. The story is set at the height of the space race, when the Soviets are winning the competition to get a manned mission into orbit and it is a time when racial and gender racism is rife. The 3 women face overwhelming barriers to successful careers but they persevere nonetheless.
    Katherine is at the heart of the story, as the unassuming, lone African-American
    woman working in in the vital Space Task Group, a crucial department working on America’s manned spaceflight programs. Her jealous, resentful colleagues consistently undermine her and segregate her. She is forced to drink out of a separate coffee pot and the only bathroom she’s allowed to use is in another building, a half mile away and so she must bring her work with her on bathroom breaks. She works under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who’s annoyed when she disappears frequently throughout the day but is impressed by her impeccable results.
    Meanwhile, her two friends face their own challenges. The very capable Dorothy Vaughan is doing the work of a manager, though her smug and racist boss (Kirsten Dunst) refuses to either promote her or pay her what she’s worth. She clearly believes an African-American woman shouldn’t be elevated to equal status. Mary Jackson, a particularly gifted mathematician wants to become an engineer but finds that it’s next to impossible for a coloured woman.
    This story highlights the remarkable achievements of these three women who made their mark in the face of daunting odds. They all went on to have pioneering and inspiring careers at NASA, where each of them was instrumental in the early space program.

    Henson, Spencer and Monáe all give superb performances and watching them is a pure delight. In fact, I thought that we didn’t get enough of them together. While each has her individual moments, they are really wonderful together and their warm personalities are a combined joy. As the child math prodigy whose genius has gone unnoticed for years, Henson give the performance of a lifetime. She completely immerses herself in the bespectacled, nerdy but determined young Katherine, who has to fight to have her ideas heard and her opinions respected. She’s stuck dealing with unfriendly white guys such as Jim Parsons’ condescending Paul Stafford (who perfectly nails the casual racism of the period). Costner is ideally suited to play the head honcho Harrison, portrayed as a man too focused and distracted to have time for petty prejudices and he sees her potential. Monáe excels as the youngest and most opinionated of the three main women. She perfectly captures Mary, the genius and social activist, who is determined to progress her career, in spite of the obstacles. Monáe is surely now
    well placed to launch an acting career to match her success in music. Spencer
    is solid as always, she’s funny and fierce as the elder stateswoman of their group who is wholly tired of having a supervisor’s responsibilities but not the salary. I thought we could have seen more of Powell who was impressive, in limited scenes, as the astronaut whose 1962 orbits captured attention worldwide.
    “Hidden Figures” is a pure pleasure to watch.
    It’s a real feel-good, family friendly film with a number of excellent performances and a variety of important stories. I loved the catchy soundtrack of Pharrell Williams’ original songs which lift the overall mood of the film and in particular his catchy tune Runnin’ which accompanies Katherine racing across the campus just to go to the bathroom is lively and brings humour to the scene. A crowd pleaser for all ages, this is a film with a powerful message that should be seen by all. It reminds us that it was the engineers, not the astronauts who really accomplished the most amazing work during the Space Race, much of it carried out by black women who fought against the odds in an era of overwhelming racial and gender inequality. These “Hidden Figures” are people we should already know and finally this film celebrates their achievements, a must see.

  • dainiux79

    A movie that is important, well-performed, and entertaining. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, in other words.

  • Clive Bower

    Love this type of film even better when its based on a true story – brought my eldest daughter and we both thought it was great. The story is very well told and brilliantly acted, check it out