“I’ve never seen a mind like the one your daughter has.”
Through the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and the paranoid landscape of the 60’s space race with Russia, Hidden Figures‘ grounded approach is all about readying for takeoff, not just towards the stars, but for fast-approaching social change and progress. Maybe the film doesn’t dig deep enough into these topics, yet it sparks conversation and interest. Hidden Figures needs to be one of those movies social studies teachers round the nation roll into their classrooms (Do schools still do that? The big box TVs strapped to rickety old carts? I assume only in rare circumstances). When the lights are flicked back on, there won’t be heads still down and asleep on folded arms. They’ll be wide-eyed, engaged, thinking critically. This story is a testament to intelligence and a prompt to further conversation and understanding.
In 1928 West Virginia, the prodigious young Katherine Goble is ahead of the curve, a little girl with a mind as brimming as her spectacles. Jump to 1961, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) works at NASA in Virginia, a state still abiding by its own legislative racism and segregation. She’s what’s labeled a human computer, cross-checking data and doing calculations before the introduction of the IBM comes into play. Working alongside her are two close friends. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) does the work of a supervisor without the job title or the compensation. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to be an engineer but struggles to overcome the blockades purposefully put in place to hinder her hopes. You watch this movie and deeply feel for these strong women, underestimated because of their gender and dismissed due to the color of their skin. The three of them just want a fair play at the game of life, even if the rest of the country sees it as another round of trivial pursuit.
Hidden Figures flourishes in its execution of a true ensemble story. Henson’s fidgety, timid, commanding. Spencer works well with what she’s given, which isn’t much, but then again she doesn’t need depth to convey her character’s complexity with such command over her expressions. And in a refreshing twist, the men always remain in the background. There’s Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, Glen Powell as the late legendary frontiersman John Glenn, and Mahershala Ali playing a marine smitten by the inner and outward beauty of Katherine. The cast is tremendous and extends even further than all of these roles, although none steal the show as much as Janelle Monáe’s spirited, blunt, no-nonsense Mary Jackson. Monáe may be an accomplished singer, but in only her second performance is nothing short of tremendous and undeniably captivating on the screen. What a promising talent she is.
Theodore Melfi directs the picture with an airy tone, almost in the style of a comedy, keeping things light and enjoyable. It works in spurts because the biographical material is actually rather heavy, occasionally seen in short glimpses and sometimes felt in the dragging length. The paradox of Hidden Figures comes from the intelligence of the NASA headquarters, all those buildings full of the best and the brightest who want to break free from the confines of gravity, all while remaining rigid and unwilling to use their smarts to see past color and/or gender. How can you have the ambition to send a human to the moon without possessing the common sense that a person is a person? It’s a maddening question, one which Hidden Figures answers with grace and dignity. We need this movie right now to remind the country that we need not seek greatness. What we so sorely need is to Make America Smart Again. This heartfelt film takes us there, one small step at a time.
“There is more than one way to achieve something.”
Rating: 4 out of 5