Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell.
Some films are great movies because of an amazing script. Others succeed because of a visionary behind the camera. Others because of incredible performances. Others still because the story is worth telling. It would be nice if all movies succeeded on all fronts, but that is rarely the case. Hidden Figures, a lovely movie about a side of history seldom told, is a fun and worthy story that succeeds because what is presented on screen is culturally and historically important and because it is brilliantly acted. At no point in the two hour running time was I in any way impressed with a shot or a scene composition. I’d like to praise Theodore Melfi, but this is one film that would have succeeded no matter who was behind the camera. The director has lucked into a couple of good projects, the other being St. Vincent a couple of years back, with a stellar cast. He has yet to showcase any kind of vision, though. The screenplay is also not the best. There are some clunky lines and a few too many stereotypical exchanges. The fact that the director and his co-screenwriter are both white does make sense with what the end result is. But the movie succeeds in spite of this.
The story centers around three black women in civil rights era Virginia. All three women are employed by NASA, where they run numbers and help calculate and coordinate the flights in the Cold War space race against the Soviet Union. Octavia Spencer (The Help) plays Dorothy Vaughan, a woman doing the job of a supervisor, but without the title or the pay. Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) is Mary Jackson, who could easily be an amazing engineer, if only she would be given the chance to take the required classes in an all-white segregated school. Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) plays lead character Katherine Johnson, a math savant who can see, hear, and speak with numbers. She gets assigned to calculate and double check the numbers for flight sequences, and first-hand plays one of the most important roles in the United States’ success back in the 60s. Rounding out the cast are Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as Johnson’s love interest, Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) as her boss, Glen Powell (Scream Queens) as astronaut John Glenn, and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Kirsten Dunst (Bring it On) as racist NASA employees.
The white characters are thinly drawn at best, they are caricatures, especially Parsons and Dunst, but in a landscape where people of color and other minorities are usually depicted in this way, I can easily forgive the film for flipping the script. Aside from being rude and racist, they aren’t much else, but that only helps the main characters feel even more fully realized. Costner and Powell get to play the more “woke” characters, the good white people, archetypal in and of themselves, but they are mostly forgettable, and definitely not the white saving heroes (unlike, say, Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave), so that is definitely a good thing. Mahershala Ali, fresh off a mesmerizing performance in Moonlight, isn’t given much to do other than be the prince charming who falls for Katherine, a widow with three daughters – but he’s charming to a fault, and a likable character throughout.
The film, though, belongs to Henson, Spencer, and Monáe. Janelle Monáe, who is primarily known as a singer and entertainer, has really impressed me this year. In Moonlight she was a tender and caring motherly surrogate, while in Hidden Figures she is a feisty, combative, and strong character, unafraid of speaking her mind or raising her head. I really enjoyed what she did with the character. Octavia Spencer is always strong, but it would be nice to see her do something different. She plays the same kind of character, the woman who judges with those big, wild eyes and who eventually speaks her mind and is heard by all. Her interactions with Dunst could have been swapped with those from The Help with Bryce Dallas Howard, and very little would have changed. I would like to see people give her more to do and a bigger chance to stretch, something tells me there’s more beneath the surface. Taraji P. Henson is a revelation. I knew she could act. She was great in Hustle & Flow, but she kept getting roles in which she played loud and, for lack of a better world, hood. I have been waiting for something different. That’s not to say that she plays meek, but the role in more restrained, quiet, and present. She inhabits this woman, and by the end of the movie, I fully believed her as real.
The casual racism throughout the film is nothing new to those of us who have studied, read, and watched content dealing with the civil rights period (or lived through it). We have grown accustomed to seeing certain aspects, and while anger inducing, they feel very remote and distant. This movie does one thing brilliantly. When Johnson gets reassigned from the space where the other women of color work to the NASA office with only other white people, she is moved a half mile away on the campus. However, the only bathroom that black women can use remains next to her former assigned space. Any time Johnson wanted to use the restroom, she had to run a half mile in one direction, relieve herself, and then run back. In a particularly strong scene, Johnson is being reprimanded for disappearing for 40 minutes at a time, and when the truth is finally disclosed, it resonates that pay, rights, and opportunity were not the only horrific effects of America’s racist, violent, and abusive history. Even the most basic human needs and behaviors were impacted by segregation, racism, and brutality. The gender disparity, while less of a focus of the movie, is also quite startling – and maybe resonates because instead of discussing it, it is simply shown as such, and anyone with eyes and a sensitivity to representation and humanity, will notice it and pay attention.
The film is also aided by a good sense of humor throughout – tonally it almost feels like a Disney movie, like the sports ones that are meant to inspire and awe. The throwback soundtrack by Pharrell Williams also helps the film keep a mostly light and funky vibe throughout. Even though it makes some of the plight of black people appear not that bad, I also appreciated that the movie chose not to depict its black characters in a negative light, something these types of biopics usually do. I’m happy I went to see this film last night. One of my friends was overcome with emotion. The audience even clapped at the end of the film, something I have rarely seen happen in the last 20 years (it used to happen much more often, but we have grown more cynical with every passing year). The film has its flaws, and is far from perfect, but the story and cast are strong and thanks to that the movie, just like the space shuttles, ultimately soars.