Hidden Figures (2016 Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films, TSG Entertainment)
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons.
Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Producers: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams.
Story by Margot Lee Shetterly. Screenplay by Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder.
Cinematography by Mandy Walker. Edited by Peter Teschner.
The incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
It’s tough being a genius when no one respects you because of the color of your skin. To make matters worse, you’re forced to walk a half-mile from your desk just to use the restroom. In the pre-Civil Rights South—and Virginia was most certainly in the South—that was the reality for mathematician Katherine Goble. Being a woman in a predominantly man’s world at NASA was bad enough for Goble, but she was also African-American…and likely smarter than everybody else in the room. How was she greeted? Dismissed as a janitor, commanded to take out the trash. Such was life for many black Americans in the early 60s.
While racism and sexism are certainly a point of the story, director Theodore Melfi takes care to not beat the audience over the head with it. Hidden Figures has an obvious message, but it remains a personal story about our three protagonists, Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—played with great chemistry by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, respectively. Each has to overcome various work-life and home-life obstacles to achieve what others may take for granted.
Hidden Figures takes care to avoid most of the clichés of the race relations of the 1960s, but let’s face it: many of those clichés are accurate and real. “Whites Only” signs actually hung over restrooms and drinking fountains in some states, once upon a time. That reality can’t be ignored.
That being said, Hidden Figures keeps its primary focus on Katherine’s work in NASA’s Space Task Group, headed by the no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who is oblivious to the Katherine’s personal struggles because he has a much greater mission at hand: put a U.S. astronaut in orbit. Once he discovers her brilliance, he begins to break down walls for her; not because he’s a Civil Rights pioneer, but because he wants to put a man in orbit.
Depicted with charm and avoiding being a “message” movie, Hidden Figures is an inspiring, feel-good story about historical giants who did the hard work to ultimately put a man on the moon. Theirs is a story worth telling and worth hearing.
*** stars (out of five)