Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are all computers at NASA, tasked with performing difficult calculations for engineers inventing space travel by hand. They also happen to be African-American women in white male dominated workplace, and Hidden Figures is all about the extra work they put in despite how hard the establishment makes it for them to do their jobs. Katherine is assigned to the team engineering John Glenn’s historic orbit, but is met with coldness from the rest of them despite her superior math abilities. Simple tasks such as going to the bathroom and getting a cup of coffee become a daily struggle under segregation. Dorothy is in charge of the women’s computing unit, but is facing obsolesce in the face of the new IBM computing machine, and the unwillingness of NASA to promote her even though she is doing to work of a supervisor. Mary is trying to get promoted to engineer, but can’t without the proper qualifications, which include graduate level night classes at an all-white high school.
Hidden Figures has a lot crammed into it, juggling Katherine as the lead, Dorothy and Mary as very prominent supporting characters, three different workplace environments, plus key glimpses into the three character’s home lives, and the national backdrop of the space race. It fits it all compactly into it’s just over 2 hour running time, but with the supporting characters of Dorothy and Mary especially, it does just go for the highlights. There’s nothing really wrong with this, except I was enjoying the company of the characters so much I could have used a lot more insights into their lives.
I’ve heard it said many times that the key to getting an audience to respect a character is not really to make them likable, but have them be really, really, good at their jobs. This film takes both tactics, showing these three women looking out for each other and other’s around them, but also being really good at math. More often than not, Katherine is only person in the room with answers, and her new supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) has no choice but to rely on her work. Dorothy sees that her job and the jobs of everyone in her unit are in danger because of mechanized computing, so she teaches herself the programming language. Contrast that with the white women’s computing unit lead by Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) who eventually have to rely on Dorothy for their jobs. Dorothy even surpasses the technicians who installed the machine in the first place. To watch this movie is less to be awed by the film’s technique than the character’s amazing dedication and skill in the face of overwhelming odds.
As such, this film can feel a bit oscar-baity. Hidden Figures makes just about the best argument in my memory for that not necessarily being a bad thing; if the film is going to tell a story that has been ignored or unknown for so long. The film’s unfussy style puts the characters and their accomplishments front and center, and the fact that three women of color are actually allowed to headline their own movie is (in a comment of the sad state of diversity in Hollywood) quite amazing. How many movies have we seen depicting space travel are populated with entirely white men? And how many movies about overcoming racism have we seen are also headlined by a white man? Sure, this movie isn’t perfect; Costner may be shown sledgehammering a “coloreds only” bathroom sign to the ground, but at least he’s in a supporting role here. He gets one, maybe a couple scenes, but the movie solidly belongs to Henson, with Monae and Spencer. Even director Theodore Melfi doesn’t get in their way.
I really had a fun time with Hidden Figures. It may be oscar-baity, but it’s also really enjoyable and everybody does a really good job with it. The performances take center stage here, and they are all pretty impressive. I also think that approach ends up working for this type of story more than it does for others. It ends up being pretty standard for this type of based on a true story movie, but I hope it sets the bedrock for more interestingly told stories to come.
“So I have no choice but to be the first.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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