Starring Taraj P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Rated PG’ of thematic elements, racism and some language
Runtime 127 minutes
This is the movie we need. This is the story America needs at this moment in history, wherein three dedicated, smart and hardworking characters change the way things are done not through bombs, not through revolt, but through the quiet revolution of work. The world is, to put it hyperbolically, falling apart. Hidden Figures attempts to bring us together and show us that, at least for a few moments in American history, what you look like didn’t mean anything. It’s what you do that defines your legacy.
The film tells the true, and I am sure somewhat exaggerated, story of NASA’s early Mercury missions, the country’s first big attempt at putting a man into space. The 60s were a tough time and great societal upheaval was everywhere. In walk three women, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae), three of the ‘computers’ at the Langley space center, overseeing construction and computation of the space shuttles. Hope you like biopics, because you’re going to get three times every single beat of that genre. Three times the overcoming odds! Three times the societal pressures! Three times the understated microaggressions against black women! And best of all, three times the ‘hooray’ when all is said and done, for a movie like this can only ever end one way: with triumph.
NASA may have had the smartest minds in the country during the 1960s, but that does not mean everyone was enlightened. Nor does it mean that there were frothing at the mouth, over-the-top ’n-word’ dropping bureaucrats to sink all of our hate and loathing into. No, the true joy – if one can call ‘racism’ that – of Hidden Figures is how it downplays its racism into something far more insidious: how it actually behaves. Not in frank and apparent ways, but in small ways: the lack of a bathroom in one wing of the building, the unfilled ‘colored’ coffee pot, the underestimation, all the ways in which racism presents itself even to this day. This serves two purposes: one, our heroines come off the stronger by enduring all of it, and two, the antagonists (those standing in their way) are a little more human because of it. One character admits to Spencer that she doesn’t think bad of you people, to which Spencer responds, ‘I think you believe that.’ The film is sure to spark some conversations with its white audience and get us to look at ourselves; something protests and charged encounters may not be able to impress upon us. A spoonful of sugar and all that.
The women are all fantastic. Taraji P. Henson, best known these days as the cunning matriarch Cookie on Empire, nails the quiet, put-upon strength of Katherine. A literal genius, she has to fight tooth and nail for every inch of space (ba dum), including the ability to use the close bathroom. The recurring motif of the film is her, or others, running across the NASA campus to the only ‘colored ladies’ bathroom in the facility. Was it made up? Sure. But it is an effective ‘hurrah’ when the time for the ‘hurrah’ comes. Spencer, already an Oscar winner and nominated again, is perhaps the least of the three women; she’s great, as always, but plays the commanding but soft manager she is well known for. Monae, on the other hand, is triumphant. She does not seek to break the system from without, but rather undermine and succeed from within. Mary is the one with the least amount of screentime, Katherine and Dorothy have the more ‘cinematic’ roles, yet Mary is the one who feels the most down to earth, the most realistically successful. She appeals, she labors and she wins. That’s America. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The unheralded champion of the film is Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the crotchety commaner of the NASA team. He is perhaps the only ‘I don’t see race’ character to ever actually live by those words. Truth is, he doesn’t care a damn about you or your skin – or your personal life for that matter – as long as you can do the math. So…progress? Hard to say. Colorblindness is not the way to go always, but it works for him.
Hidden Figures hits all the right beats one would expect in a biopic. There is nothing surprising from a storytelling standpoint amongst its brisk two runtime. But that is okay. A well told story is a well told story, even if it does not break from standard narrative conventions. It is not meant to cut to the heart of the matter or provoke reams of dialogue. It will make you feel good, for everyone involved; for those who persevered, for those who learned and for those who reached for the stars. I am sure we can all relate to at least one of those, and that is the not-so-hidden power of Hidden Figures.