Review: ‘Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer Soars In A Film With Tremendous Heart

During the day, I’m a 5th-grade teacher, I find the work to be humbling, rewarding, and quite eye opening as well. One would think that in 2016, there wouldn’t be such a gender split with young children but you would be sadly mistaken. For example in my classroom, for every three boys that are into math/science, I have one girl who is into those subjects as well. I find this number absolutely heart breaking which is why films like Hidden Figures are so incredibly important because it puts women into roles that society isn’t accustomed to seeing on screen, as mathematicians and scientists. This film has the potential to take the unspoken perverse notion that girls who love math and science are supposed just to stay “Hidden Figures” and bring them to the forefront.

Now anyone who just watched the trailer for this film could easily make the mistake that Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is just about race relations. While race certainly does play a part in this narrative, to say that’s all this film is to miss out on the real beauty of Melfi’s adapted screenplay. This movie is about facing adversity in the most absurd of situations. Taraji P. Henson plays mathematician Virgina Johnson who while being clearly the most intelligent person in NASA’s think tank, she still had to adhere to ridiculous Jim Crow laws like going to a different bathroom ( which was a mile away). Henson also has to deal with the perception that NASA is just a place where men flourish when she demands to be part of prelaunch meetings and to have her name on the launch reports because honestly, she did all the work.

Dorothy Vaughn is played by Octavia Spencer, and she embodies the unshakeable spirit of someone who wouldn’t take no for answer. Vaughn worked just like Johnson as mathematician behind the scenes in NASA think tank (the group that helped develop the Mercury missions and eventually the Apollo program). Vaughn had dreams of bettering herself and consistently would apply and apply once more for supervisory positions (because she was already doing the work).At first, she was being rejected due to her skin color and then it was because they were doing away with her whole department at NASA due to a recent purchase of IBM computers. Rather than take this news and just roll with it, she stepped up and acquired a computer programming manual and taught herself how to program those computers. What she didn’t know at the time is that NASA was having an issue because no one knew how to work these highly expensive pieces of equipment (smart huh!). Vaughn character showed us all that no perceived “barriers” would get in the way of her success.

Mary Jackson is played by Janelle Monae, and she faced the toughest of challenges. Jackson wanted to become an engineer but couldn’t go to class due to some horrid Jim Crow laws restricting what school she could go to and just the mere the notion of female engineer seemed crazy. Rather than allow these obstacles to get in the way, she took the case to court and won. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when she walks into the classroom, and everyone stops midsentence as they are shocked to see not only and African-American but a woman as well.

If there were an award for the best ensemble at the Academy Awards, then Hidden Figures would be considered the prohibitive favorite. The chemistry between these three women is undeniable. Melfi’s script is well written and allows the most poignant moments to have their space. Monae, Spencer, and Henson but forth the best performances of their respective acting careers. Henson is dynamite as she shows how integral Virgina Johnson was in getting astronauts like John Glenn to space. Monae demonstrates her versatility as she proves that Mary Jackson can accomplish anything. However, it was Spencer who stood out most to me.

Octavia Spencer showed such artistry in portraying Mary Vaughn it was if the scenes were her canvas and her emotions were the watercolors of this masterpiece. Vaughn had to show strength when she was sticking up for her girls as well as a vulnerability when she is told no again and again. While Jackson and Johnson acknowledge the obstacles facing them, it’s Vaughn who has the guts to speak up for what is right. Spencer embodies this trailblazing spirit and shows what can be done if you put your mind to it.

Certainly, this film will be in the running for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (if not then be prepared for a controversy) as well as Best Supporting Actress as Octavia Spencer is destined to be nominated. However, don’t be surprised if Pharrell and Hans Zimmer are nominated for original score in the film. Pharrell and Mr. Zimmer were very deliberate in avoiding a score that evoked space-related imagery and crafted a score that matched the importance of the topics which were addressed.

Above all of the accolades, we finally have a film that truly shows that gender or skin color shouldn’t prohibit you from following your love for Science or Math. If the Siena’s and Grace’s of the world are inspired by this tale, then this film has done its job, and this perverse notion about girls and math/science will be a thing of the past.

Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.

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