Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali
There is something romantic about the Space Race. The sheer ambition of it. Literally shooting for the moon. Particularly today when politics seems so petty the aspirational nature of it is appealing. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures tells the true story of three unsung heroes working behind the scenes at NASA, using this moment of heroic scientific progress to reveal equally heroic social progress.
It is 1961, and in Langley, Virginia, NASA’s engineers are deep into planning the Mercury mission that will see John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth. But these are still analogue times. The ‘computers’ that the engineers use to do their calculations are people, predominantly women, seen effectively as mathematical clerical workers. Among these computers are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). While the work they do is critical to the success of the Mercury mission, they still live in a segregated world, working in the West Computing Group, a coloured pool in a far corner of NASA’s campus. The film follows the three women as they each go on journeys which challenge their supposed place in the world. When Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) needs someone for the Space Task Group who can do high level analytic geometry, Katherine finds herself as a black woman thrust into a white male space. Mary is sent to assist on the team working on the Mercury Capsule prototype, where she is encouraged by the team leader to enrol in NASA’s engineer program, despite there never having been a woman or black person in that program before. Dorothy, meanwhile, struggles to be officially recognised for the managerial role she performs with the West Computing Group, and seeing the writing on the wall with the arrival of NASA’s first cumbersome IBM, prepares herself and her group for a career transition.
What makes Hidden Figures thematically interesting is the way that it explores an intersection between racial inequality and gender inequality. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary all face barriers of prejudice on their journeys, but these barriers are not all motivated by the same prejudice. When Katherine starts to become a central member of the Space Task Group she encounters opposition from lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), but his problem with her is connected to his notion of gender hierarchy. Yet there is an institutional racism, exemplified by the fact that there is no ‘coloured’ bathroom in the main NASA building which means Katherine must run a mile across the campus to her old office whenever she needs to relieve herself. Dorothy’s conflict with her manager Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) stems from Vivian’s racial bias. When Mary joins the team working on the Mercury Capsule prototype she, like Katherine, steps into an environment where she is both the only person of colour and the only woman. In all of these situations Melfi manages to visually capture the experience of being out of place and having all eyes on you.
Where most films follow the growth and development of their protagonists as they undergo their journey, from the first moment we meet our trio of heroines, stranded on the side of the road as Dorothy attempts to repair their broken down car, they are already fully formed. They are smart, resourceful and proud women, entirely confident in their abilities. Hidden Figures is thus a film more about the way that the world changes around them as they navigate their challenges, than how they are made to change by it. It is characters like Al Harrison, Paul and Vivian who experience varying degrees of revelation and transformation as the narrative progresses.
Melfi tells his story in a very classical manner, to the point that Hidden Figures almost feels like a throwback. There is something comforting and charming about the simple way in which the story progresses. It hits the beats you expect in the way you expect at the time you expect, treating its important themes with a good dose of humour and a lightness of touch. When added to the fact that it is based on a true story so you always have confidence in where the story is heading, it means as a viewer you always have sure footing, and the result is an immensely satisfying experience.
Hidden Figures is held together by some thoroughly enjoyable performances which manage a light, sometimes comedic tone while honouring the seriousness of the greater issues being explored. While Octavia Spencer received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Dorothy, she doesn’t noticeably stand head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble, with Henson, Monae and Costner also delivering really effective performances.
Hidden Figures is simple and at times even a little hokey, but while there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about they way it tells its story, it is a story that is well worth telling.
Review by Duncan McLean
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