Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
One of the main messages driving this film, the message alluded to in the movie’s title, is how behind every great story in history are a dozen smaller stories we never hear about. Whether they’ve been overshadowed by the larger narrative, side-lined due to the prejudices of the time, or just plain forgotten, these are the stories that remain hidden in the past, waiting to be rediscovered. All too often these forgotten stories are those that involve historically marginalised groups such as women and people of colour (in this case both!). However impressive or significant these stories can be, it can take a long time for them to attain the publicity and recognition they deserve. Cinema is a great tool to bring these stories into the spotlight and Hidden Figures has a great one to tell. It concerns a division of NASA made up of African-American women whose efforts contributed towards what is arguably mankind’s single greatest 20th century achievement, the Moon Landing.
The film focuses on three women in particular who worked on the Mercury 7 mission in 1961 that allowed John Glenn (Glen Powell) to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), an exceptional mathematician, is assigned to the Space Task Group directed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costenr) as a computer. She is met with derision by her white male colleagues, most notably Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and finds her job to be nearly impossible under the Segregationist conditions she must follow. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer, finds that she must attend night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain her degree and must therefore go to court to get permission. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) oversees the coloured women’s sector at NASA in an unofficial capacity with the responsibility of a supervisor but not the recognition or salary. When her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) condescendingly denies her appeal for a promotion, Dorothy directs her efforts towards making her girls crucial to NASA’s mission.
In American history there are two particular social causes that made significant strides over the course of the 20th century: feminism and civil rights. This movie focuses on both and what it does very well is illustrate what a tremendous uphill battle these ladies had to fight on both fronts. While NASA was pragmatic enough to understand that they need to use every resource at their disposal if they want to beat the Russians to the moon, they weren’t progressive enough to extend the same rights and respect to the ‘coloured computers’ as to their white colleagues. Upon being reassigned to a department where she is the only person of colour, Katherine discovers that there are no bathrooms in the building that will accommodate her, leading her to take exhaustingly lengthy detours just so she can relieve herself. While some of the race and gender discrimination displayed can be somewhat simplistic (Parsons character is particularly cartoonish in his derision), the film does a good job of establishing the systemic and institutional nature of these inequities, calling out the white men and women who may not have necessarily advocated segregation but who also did nothing to combat or protest it. One scene I especially liked was when Vivian insists to Dorothy that her harsh attitude is not because she’s prejudiced, to wish Dorothy replies “I know. I know you probably believe that”.
Henson, Monáe and Spencer are the stars of the show and each one of them shines. As Katherine, Henson portrays both the determination and frustration of someone who’s just trying to do their job and is being punished for it at every turn. This climaxes beautifully in Henson’s majestic outburst where she delivers an enraged monologue to her callous co-workers and Costner’s reasonable but preoccupied boss, about the unjust bathroom situation. Henson can be fiery and passionate like nobody’s business and this is one of her finest moments. Monáe excels as the glamorous, self-confident Mary whose charming yet assertive petition to the judge is one of the movie’s most memorable and satisfying moments. Spencer’s Dorothy has perhaps the biggest burden to bear as she must stand up not only for herself but for all the women under her supervision. Fortunately she is as astute as she is capable and when she realises that the newly installed IBM computer will make her division obsolete, she set outs to make her girls indispensible by learning before anyone else how the machine actually works.
Although the movie can be simplistic and a little too on-the-nose at times, that can be forgiven in a film as crowd-pleasing as this. The film takes its subject seriously but injects some humour as well, allowing for a playful, upbeat tone that saves this movie from being as preachy or as sombre as it could’ve been. This isn’t a movie that simply sets out to let us know that discrimination is bad, nor does it present a revisionist narrative that dares to paint racism and sexism as relics of the past that don’t exist in modern society anymore. Hidden Figures is a tale of empowerment about three strong, courageous women who challenged a system that was rigged against them and achieved their own personal triumphs. Their victories may have gone unsung for too long and the inequalities they battled may be very much still around, but that’s exactly what makes films like these so important and so satisfying. Hidden Figures is well-written, well-acted, and well worth watching.