Synopsis: Based on a true story. A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. (Source)
It’s easy to look back at history and remember our accomplishments, but Hidden Figures is a powerful reminder that every idea and step forward in human progress only happens because someone works really hard to get us there. In this case, director Theodore Melfi’s film focuses on three black women, unsung heroes, and how their resolve under societal oppression put a man on the moon. Watching the story unfold, I’m ashamed that it’s but a blip on our collective conciseness – luckily, this film is finally here to give credit where it’s due. What transpires is two hours of inspiring fun that never talks down to its audience, but ends up making us want to cheer and work towards a better world. Oh yeah, and the entire thing is headlined by three can’t-miss performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.
The story takes place during the pivotal US/Russian space race, turning an eye toward the West Area Computing Unit comprised of segregated African American female mathematicians. The group was largely responsible for helping NASA with aeronautical research, with the film centering around Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Katherine is a single mother, a former child prodigy who knows numbers like few others, becoming one of NASA’s most important human computers. Dorothy heads up the West Area unit as a defacto supervisor, eventually teaching her employees computer language, and becoming an asset to NASA’s Computing division. Their colleague Mary is an aspiring engineer, working on wind-tunnel experiments and theoretical aerodynamics. Together, the trio weather a myriad of personal and professional trials, never giving up on equality while inspiring those around them.
Amidst the glut of true-life stories, this one cuts through the mix and rings relevant now more than ever. Though the film doesn’t downplay the severity of institutional racism rampant in every scene, Melfi’s focus is the ingenuity and and determination of these smart women, and how they had the foresight and intelligence to work within their situation. From scene to scene, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are faced with trials in which the goalposts seem to shift whenever they get the upper hand – it’s incredible to see how they handle themselves, always having the strength to look forward. In that sense, the film’s greatest weapon is its optimism, and it’s an asset that gets us past some of the more harrowing moments and social truths that sting even to this day. It’s also great to see a film tackle so many issues, looking at the past to shine a mirror on the present, while remaining accessible, and with an infectious sense of fun and energy. Ultimately, Melfi illustrates that compassion and unity are timeless ideas that bring out the best in us.
The indispensable thing about the film is its ensemble of women. Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine is the centerpiece, giving her character blinding ambition, conviction and stoicism. She commands every scene that’s she’s in and you never really want to leave her side. Henson shows that she’s a powerhouse performer who should be headlining more films. Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy is the most relatable, playing her weary character with a down-to-earth quality who isn’t afraid to do what needs to be done – she speaks with actions rather than words. As Mary, Janelle Monae makes another worthy transition to the screen (following Moonlight), giving her character charm and sometimes acting as the wildcard of the group. Together, each woman displays a feminine ferocity that we can’t, and don’t want to look away from. Rounding things out, Kevin Costner gives his beleaguered NASA director Al Harrison real presence, while Kirsten Dunst’s Vivan Mitchell offers a realistic adversary alongside Jim Parsons’ Paul Stafford, who stuns as an egotistical colleague (a compliment). Mahershala Ali also shines as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s love interest, punctuating the film with some levity.
Hidden Figures is sincere without heavy pandering, and playful without shying away from the deep injustices at its core. It’s a truly challenging film that breaks down barriers and makes us want to strive for a world where we understand and realize the beauty in each one of us, regardless of skin color or gender. Melfi’s film is a reflection of the terrible things we’re capable of as a society, but ultimately celebrates the good that we can accomplish together, as a whole. This is a story of triumph, a tribute to the heroes that don’t get noticed, but also to those who will be inspired by these remarkable women to leave their own positive mark on the world.