Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst
‘Hidden Figures’ is doing very, very well in America. Despite stiff competition from ‘Rogue One’ and ‘La La Land’, people are turning out in great numbers for the plucky little film that could. This is despite being almost totally ignored by awards season thus far (except for the crushingly embarrassing and frankly racist ‘Hidden Fences’ gaff at the Golden Globes). So, does it deserve to be the Number One movie in the US? The answer is a resounding, YES.
The film covers the astonishing story that in the early 1960s, when the space-race between the USSR and USA was at its peak, some of the most brilliant mathematical, technical and engineering minds behind the NASA space missions were African-American women. This coincides with the beginnings of the civil rights movement, where some states including Virginia (where the Langley Research Centre is based) were still segregated. ‘Hidden Figures’ focuses on three of these women: Katherine (Taraji Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe), who start off as “computers” – which was a word for a person before it became a word for a machine. They work in a segregated cabin at the back of NASA, crunching numbers. Dorothy is performing the role of supervisor, despite not being given the title or pay to reflect this. Mary is promoted to the engineering department, but realises there are many barriers in the way of her becoming an actual engineer – the only way she can get the qualifications she needs is by attending courses at an all-white High School. Katherine is promoted into NASA’s inner-sanctum, working on the vital calculations needed to ensure the rockets can take off and land without killing the astronauts on board. Dorothy hears that something called an IBM is arriving at NASA and quickly realises that it may replace all of the human computers. So, she promptly teaches herself coding and learns how to operate this new-fangled machine.
The three central actors are exceptional, particularly Henson, who is the vulnerable human centre of the story, in a role starkly contrasting Cookie in Empire. Monáe, who is the ‘star of the moment’, plays the more out-going, out-spoken role, but it is Katherine who achieves the important break-throughs in the workplace. The supporting actors include the currently ubiquitous Mahershala Ali (‘Luke Cage’, ‘Moonlight’) as Katherine’s suitor and Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, proving that 1960s Costner is the only tolerable Costner. Jim Parsons also features (being admirably un-Sheldon-like, despite playing a maths/science geek) and Kirsten Dunst, playing a small role and unlikeable character – a surprising choice for such a big name.
My only minor grumble with the story is that we only see a tiny section at the very start, showing Katherine as a child maths prodigy. We don’t get any background on Dorothy or Mary or found out how they came to work for NASA in the first place, albeit in lowly roles to begin with. I wanted to know everything about these women and how they must have defied stereotypes and exceeded expectations at every stage of their lives to end up in the positions they did. The film culminates with the characters anxiously watching John Glenn achieve orbit (the fist time for an American) and manages to eek tension out of it, despite real life being a spoiler. It does bring home the fact that a human being was effectively shot into space in a tin can, with such basic technology and communication to bring him home.
Of course, this film has massive feel-good factor. It is incredibly heart-warming and is truly a family film that will appeal to multiple generations. It is equally an important educational film, as I have heard many Americans (of different races) crying out on Twitter “why did I not know this story? Why has it taken a movie to bring this to light?”. After last year’s “Oscars So White” furore, the Academy really should be spoiled for choice this year, with ‘Moonlight’, ‘Fences’, ‘American Honey’, ’13th’, ‘Lion’, ‘A United Kingdom’, ‘Loving’, and ‘Hidden Figures’ to choose a diverse ray of talent from. However, BAFTA has ignored some of these and the Globes frustratingly seemed to find people pitting ‘La La Land’ against ‘Moonlight’, as if it is an either/or choice. Hopefully the Academy will represent diversity through all of the categories this year, but that of course, remains to be seen. It would be a shame if ‘Hidden Figures’ were completely over-looked because it deserves to have a light shined on it. But, the fact that it is doing so well in the US is certainly encouraging, as this is a story that everyone should know about. Go see it!
Fiona’s rating: 8.5 out of 10