Hidden Figures (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements and some language
Running Time: 127 min.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Maheshala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi (based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly)
Review published January 16, 2017
Hidden Figures seeks to showcase the little-known story of three adept African-American women, all computers who worked for NASA's space program in the 1960s (many of the events transpired in the 1940s and 1950s in real life, but condensed for narrative purposes here). In an age before electronic computers did all of the calculations, these women were part of a team responsible for double checking the figures put out by engineers working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. During this period, the gals helped with work to speed up the role of the United States in the Space Race, working on the Mercury program, and other notable ventures.
Taraji P. Henson (No Good Deed, Think Like a Man Too) stars as a widowed mother of three, Katherine Johnson, who gets a juicy promotion to work for the Space Task Group, under the firm but even-handed direction of Al Harrison (Costner, Criminal). Harrison who slowly but surely begins to see her immense talent for mathematics, though some of her colleagues can't see beyond her gender and race as an equal (she even has to use a coffee pot and a bathroom in another building, a half-mile away, reserved for 'colored people'.
Octavia Spencer (Allegiant, Zootopia) plays Dorothy Vaughn, who manages the outfit where the "colored computers" are housed, though her supervisor isn't going to bat for her to get a promotion for work she's already doing, which might become obsolete with the advent of mainframe computers to do the work better and faster than her staff can. Janelle Monae (Moonlight) plays Mary Jackson, currently working on the team that is testing the heat shielding for their spacecraft. Mary wants to be a full-fledged NASA engineer, but is held back by a technicality where only those who get a credential from an all-white school can apply. All three of them have their work cut out for them in terms of proving themselves in an organization that is almost entirely dominated by men, in an area of the country still segregated by racial divides.
Very loosely cultivated (i.e., mostly fictionalized) true events as chronicled in the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, Roshambo) co-writes and directs this seriocomic look at the struggles of African-American women in the workplace, as well as showcasing how America is stronger when all people have an equal chance to be at the table to help the country be the best that it can be. Melfi keeps the energy and vibe of the piece flowing throughout, keeping a proper tone. If there is an element that could have been handled better, it's in the overbearing introduction of racist or sexist elements at every single turn the women take, never allowing the women to be seen by us beyond their external features.
While these aspects of the African-American and female perspective on trying to make it in a system geared toward whites and males should definitely be alluded to, it would be nice to see more rounded characterizations for these very complex and intelligent women beyond just how others negatively react to them. There are attempts to show their lives away from the job, but they often come off as forced and phony as most Hollywood fictional narratives. (The real Katherine Johnson has stated that she had always been treated as a peer within NASA and perceived no segregation other that what had been mandated by Virginia state law, though some gender bias did exist for the women there generally). Some of the more superfluous elements come from the depictions of the love lives of a couple of the main characters, including Katherine's courtship at the hands of a debonair officer in the National Guard. It would be nice to see these historical women as human, rather than recycled characters built from clichés.
All three leads are likeable in their respective roles, even if Henson does offer perhaps a bit too much ham in making her character nerdy (including pushing up her glasses to punctuate obvious lines meant to be funny). Also performing well in a role that seems catered to someone of his talents is Kevin Costner. Most of the rest of the solid cast is also fine portraying composite or fictional characters meant to be representatives of the unconsciously dismissive and compulsory form of racism and that makes the so-called glass ceiling in the engineering field a persistent reality.
The retro-styled music is another asset, with Pharell Williams, a producer on the film, providing the selection of terrific soul/R&B music, including a few snappy original songs like "Runnin'" and "I See a Victory") The storyline itself may seem superficial much of the time, but the soundtrack is a wealth of rich and catchy material that makes the Hidden Figures album one of the best of the year.
Being a PG-rated film, it does present some important themes that younger viewers will be able to process regarding America's shameful history with holding back people due to their race and gender, as well as how people of any color or sex are just as capable (and necessary) in learning how to be anything their minds and hearts impel them to follow. It also shows that perseverance in the face of persistent bigoted resistance is important if one wants to get ahead in a society stacked against them. We are a better country, and a better humanity, with all of us working together. It's hard not to root for any film that informs our potential future leaders of industry about that, not to mention the importance of learning math and science.
Although a good deal of Hidden Figures suffers from pat and predictable story arcs and broadness in its delivery, there is an inherent watchability to the way Melfi has constructed the narrative in a playfully comical way that makes it still entertaining beyond its manufactured properties. It does follow an amusing, feel-good formula that, while it undercuts the importance of the true story about women deserving of being recognized as actual people, still works enough in its execution to leave general audiences content with what they've seen as they walk out of the theater.
©2017 Vince Leo