Hidden Figures is the first ‘must-see’ film of 2017, but not for the usual reasons.
Does it feature powerhouse performances from its lead and supporting casts? Absolutely, yes.
Is it a well-crafted film, solid in terms of storytelling, vision, and execution? Yes — a tad conventional, maybe, but not so much that predictability diminishes enjoyment.
But what makes Hidden Figures ‘must-see’ is that it’s an important story. Drawn from NASA’s legendary “Right Stuff” days, at the height of the “Space Race,” it’s so little known that even members of the cast were unaware of it prior to reading the script.
The real-life people dramatized in Hidden Figures are just as much pioneers as the men they helped rocket to into orbit. The film treats their stories with reverence, but with an eye for realism and detail.
The result is a film worthy of their legacies, and thus certainly worthy of audiences’ attention.
What’s it about?
In 1960, at NASA’s facility in Langley, Virginia, three women — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — worked as part of an entirely female group of “computers” – skilled mathematicians crunching numbers vital to the engineering work necessary to put an American into space.
The women of the West Computing Group — all African-American — were all subject to the everyday reality of segregation. They worked and ate their lunches apart from white counterparts, in facilities less modern and comfortable than their white counterparts, all for less pay.
Despite these conditions, Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson all came to stand out in terms of what they could contribute. Vaughn was already the de facto head of West Computing, a supervisor in all but the title and compensation. Jackson had NASA engineers convinced she could be an engineer herself, the first woman of color to ever hold such a position.
Johnson, a prodigy who had her degree in mathematics by 18, finds herself assigned to NASA’s most critical task. She joins the Space Task Group, the team of engineers and scientists tasked with figuring out how to get an American into space and get him home safely before the Soviets figured it out.
All three women face battles large and small as they work to make NASA’s goals a reality. All three must deal with barriers set against them due to the color of their skin just to do the jobs they love and take care of their families.
And all of them rise to heights of success none imagined possible at the time for men or women of color.
Strong directorial vision
The power of Hidden Figures starts with the vision of director Theodore Melfi. Melfi keeps the narrative frame focused on what it was like for Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson to live and work in that time and place.
It’s from the details of those experiences that the film derives its power. Melfi makes clear that the achievements of these women would have been remarkable for anyone under any circumstances. Taking into account the particular hurdles they faced, however, makes their story all the more incredible.
That’s not to say that Hidden Figures is all hardship and struggle. The film takes time to dramatize moments of joy, laughter, and gentle romance for the women at its heart. Those moments inject a needed lightness, breaking up what might otherwise have felt like just a well-acted history lesson.
Henson, Spencer lead superb cast
Hidden Figures features an incredible collection of acting talent, both veteran and emerging. Recognizable faces are everywhere here, from Kevin Costner to Jim Parsons to Kirsten Dunst.
But the standouts in this ensemble are easily Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. Henson’s effort shines brightest in part due to how different it is from her work on TV’s “Empire.” Those who know her just as “Cookie” will likely be the most floored by the range she shows here. Those who remember her stellar work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Hustle and Flow shouldn’t be as surprised.
Spencer, in comparison, doesn’t get as much screen time as Henson. She makes every moment she gets count, however, projecting dignity and quiet strength as the matriarch among her group. Her scenes with Dunst, who plays a supervisor for the computers, represent, in part, obstacles facing people on both sides of the race divide.
Again, Hidden Figures is a ‘must-see’ event. It’s entertaining, enlightening, and uplifting, all qualities that usually lead to a memorable movie experience.
But the film’s value goes beyond just that. In an age when most think of “computers” as keyboards and monitors, it’s important to know the word once meant something else.
At a point when NASA looks to Mars as the next great leap, it’s important to remember those who took part in the first steps.
At a time where those who feel disenfranchised might feel the most disillusioned, it’s important to point to others who could have also given up hope, and didn’t.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Kimberly Quinn. Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.