In the early sixties, continually being outdone by the Russians, America works effortlessly to win the race for space and to have their astronauts orbit the earth and to eventually land on the moon. In the middle of all this, three brilliant female African-American NASA employees face sexism and racial segregation as they provide invaluable contributions to the American space program, these “hidden figures” furthering the advancement of mankind for decades to come.
Indeed based on true events and individuals, this is an important, previously untold story about the females of colour that were instrumental in America’s space race and the story here is told admirably. It deals with racism but not in the obvious way that you’d expect, with over-the-top insults and shocking attacks. Instead, it looks more at segregation that was everywhere in the sixties and how black people, especially females, had to jump through ridiculous hoops to achieve the simplest things and how they weren’t allowed the same workplace opportunities as white men. As it is said in the film, as soon as they were close to achieving something, the finish line was purposefully moved further away by the powers that be.
Right at the centre of Hidden Figures are three incredible, real-life women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, portrayed here by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae respectively. These are three wonderfully amazing characters and they are played perfectly by the three actresses; they have amazing chemistry together, they illicit a great deal of smiles from the audience and this central triumvirate holds the film together excellently.
The main protagonist is Katherine, a mathematical genius who developed these incredible abilities at a very young age and who singlehandedly provides NASA with essential figures and calculations, despite having information deliberately withheld from her, having to run a ridiculous distance to use the coloured bathroom and generally being given the cold shoulder by everyone she works with. She is indeed a fascinating presence and Henson’s performance is spot on, getting to deliver the only real “shouty scene” in the film, as it was with Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, so I’ve heard.
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is something of a motherly figure to Katherine and Mary and at NASA, performs all the duties of a supervisor, despite not receiving any extra pay, benefits or an official title. She has an aptitude for understanding machines and soon becomes the only one who knows how to operate the brand new IBM machine. As you would expect, Spencer is marvellous in the role: authoritative, charismatic, intelligent and at times, really funny. Finally, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) strives to become an engineer but NASA soon fixes things so that females aren’t allowed to do so, despite Mary having extensive education and qualifications and she eventually has to plead her case in court. Monae is excellent in the role (I didn’t figure out it was her until halfway through!) and is charismatic, strong, funny and thoroughly likeable.
The supporting cast also performs well; Kevin Costner (channelling a great deal of Tom Hanks, I think) is suitably authoritative and likeable as director Al Harrison and Glen Powell is insanely charismatic and affable as John Glenn. And Jim Parsons plays an engineer. What would Sheldon Cooper think about that?!
Hidden Figures is a consistent film, its screenplay is spot-on, it has a fair amount of humour and it is directed competently. It also has a great soundtrack, courtesy of both Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams. Plus, the special effects of the space launches are done well and the film successfully incorporates archival footage from Kennedy, Dr. King and sixties space launches.
I did feel though that the “romantic” element between Katherine and Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) was a little thin and a bit unnecessary and I also would have liked to have seen much more of Janelle Monae. Plus, all those equations, numbers and mathematics can give you a headache, though it is all essential to the narrative.