There is a lot to love about Hidden Figures – the story of three geniuses’ instrumental in the advancement of American rocket science, which allowed NASA to put a man in orbit and eventually, on the moon! That makes it a great story, and a great American modern history. But the fact that this great American history revolves around three genius African American women who achieved all of that and more, despite being subjected to the worst of segregated 1960s America, makes it not only thoroughly engaging, but, yes, inspirational too.
Like Queen of Katwe, some might criticise Hidden Figures for being “too inspirational”. But, like Queen of Katwe, Hidden Figures simply presents to the world yet another example of brilliant Africans overcoming impossible and deliberate disadvantage, to take their place in history.
The film is based on the true story of the African American contribution to the purer sciences and adapted from book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly; set over the year leading up to the Friendship 7 mission, which launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the planet and guaranteed his safe return in 1962. The movie centres on solving the mathematics, physics, engineering and computing issues of the time. It is unique, because those genius contributors wereAfrican American women who had to overcome racism and misogyny at a time when even white women were openly oppressed. Yet still, working mothers like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith, Barbara Holley and many more – helped to achieve something beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race.
The increasingly versatile Taraji P. Henson is Katherine Johnson – a physicist, space scientist, and mathematics prodigy with a gift for noticing patterns since her days as a child identifying polygons on her stained-glass windows. The consistently excellent Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan – a mathematician who learned and taught the Fortran computer language when not even the installers could make sense of the newly installed IBM computer at NASA. The impressively promising Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, who graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Physical Science, and specialised in reducing data from wind tunnel experiments and live aircraft data on flight experiments. Otherwise known as the ‘Colored Computers’, who whilst drawing a wage, do not have steady work, until it looks like Russia is winning the space race; we meet them as they make their move from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to NASA in the West Area Computer group, and it’s there that we witness a “God-ordained miracle.”
This movie is obviously blessed by its trio of central stars; add to that Kevin Costner’s return to JFK form as Al Harrison, who leads the scientific team, and the quiet intensity of the ever-excellent Mahershala Ali in romance mode as Lt. Col. Jim Johnson, and we can safely say that Hidden Figures is, to all intents and purposes, the film we hoped it would be!
A gorgeous looking period film, co-written with Allison Shroeder (Pineapple Express, 2008, Mean Girls, 2011), blending of archive and original footage. It has managed to avoid most of the dreadful pitfalls of movies made by white filmmakers about the African American experience. This is to the credit of Theodore “Ted” Melfi (St. Vincent, 2014), in only his second directing role, who seems to have trusted his exceptional central cast to do what they do best.
Although, his direction didn’t save them from the strangely clichéd, clunky dialogue during much of the perhaps over-long first act. In fact, during most of the scenes which would have been outside of the direct white gaze, where most of the intimate knowledge of African American life would have been needed, are the places where the film suffers most. However, with the one-liners and observational humour consistent throughout, the film finally settles down and finds its rhythm. Its real strength depicting the women demonstrating their self-belief. Spencer’s Vaughan, as ever, constantly devours the screen, whilst Henson’s Johnson and Monáe’s Jackson specifically get a monologue each to really shine – Henson in answer to her boss’s challenge about her 40 minute absences, and Monáe in convincing a judge to support her petition viral to advance her career.
Hidden Figures manages to highlight how arbitrary segregation and white supremacy in America really is, handling the obvious juxtapositions well, without disregarding other relevant issues of the time. There is a surprising lightness of touch overall, whilst showing respect for the subject matter. There is also a strong message to support diversity of thought in the workplace as another subtle, underlying theme.
We have seen inspirational stories of mainly African American achievements in political movements like Denzel Washington’s Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), Malcolm X in Malcolm X (1992), David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (2013); their achievements in the military like Cuba Gooding Jr’s Master Diver Carl Brashear in Men Of Honour (2000); sporting greats like Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali in Ali (2001) and Samuel L. Jackson’s Ken Carter in Coach Carter (2005); University professors like Denzel Washington’s Melvin B. Tolson and his Harvard-challenging debate team in The Great Debaters (2007), and Juilliard-trained genius violinists like Jamie Foxx’s Nathaniel Ayres in The Soloist (2009). There have also been rare instances of stories about African contributors to medical science – Yasiin Bey/Mos Def as Vivien Thomas and his incalculable contribution to heart surgery in babies in Something The Lord Made (HBO, 2004) and Will Smith as Dr. Bennett Omalu and his strides in describing brain damage in NFL football players in Concussion (2015). Ten stories – all about men.
How refreshing to see a positive sisterhood and the beauty of family and community helping people from the most oppressed group in society achieve all that they could.
Hidden Figures hits UK cinemas on February 17th 2017.