Hidden Figures is a pretty good feel good story about the invaluable contributions of three black women in the Space Race.
It’s close to being great, but lacks a tighter narrative and a willingness to fully delve into the ugliness of the time period. That approach makes for an easy crowd-pleaser just one that errs too much on the side of playing it safe.
It’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long for these women to get their due. This isn’t widespread common knowledge and the names Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan aren’t even household names regularly mentioned during Black History Month programming.
For that reason alone Hidden Figures would be an easily recommended winner. It pulls the curtain back on largely unsung heroes who battled racism, sexism and an unprecedented challenge to beat the Russians to space.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, Moonlight) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work in the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. as computers — genius level mathematicians.
In the ongoing effort to get astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell, The Expendables 3) to space, each sets off on a historical path in aiding NASA’s mission to safely send a man into space.
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) gets a lot of mileage showcasing the commonplace deplorable status quo during the Civil Rights elements. Melfi doesn’t break new ground here. The portrayals of closeminded and outright nasty racists almost feels cliché. Besides, going too in depth on how depraved the racism was during the 60s wouldn’t work in the context of the film’s tone so Melfi largely addresses it from a surface level.
Melfi and co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder— adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book — find a more fascinating angle tackling women operating in a predominantly white workplace. And the glimpse back in time to a period where beating the Russians was a priority. My how times have changed…
You expect the racism so characters like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons in an atypical nasty role) barely register. Melfi strikes a too comedic tone over the indignity of Johnson’s challenge in merely using the bathroom though. Henson does get a fantastic impassioned scene as Johnson reaches the breaking point that rightfully calls out the casual racism and sexism she faces on a daily basis.
Schroeder and Melfi take a curious approach with a film based on three women and make Johnson the focus. Johnson has enough of a story arc — including a courtship with military man Jim Johnson (Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali capping off a brilliant year with another strong supporting performance), — that the others weren’t needed. It helps that Henson makes Johnson an easy underdog in a harsh environment where few expect her to succeed.
Still, that focus does a disservice to Jackson and Vaughan’s trials and eventual triumphs. When Jackson sets out to be an engineer, the challenges are presented so cursory it’s hard to invest in her struggle. Likewise, Vaughan’s efforts to earn a managerial title seem a minor nuisance. Even with the apparent obstacle from her supervisor (Kristen Dunst) plays out more inevitable than a taxing, emotional struggle.
Despite limited opportunities to really flesh out their characters, Monae and Spencer are terrific. Spencer stands a reasonable chance of earning one of the coveted Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations.
But Monae continues to impress in her amazing breakout year following the singer’s stellar debut in Moonlight. Kevin Costner rounds out the stellar ensemble as Johnson’s boss, who doesn’t care about color so much as accomplishing the mission.
Hidden Figures was a story that needed to be told. It’s educational and entertaining thanks to its endearing cast and timeless message of reaching for the stars and beyond no matter the obstacles.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox