Rating: 3 out of 5
Biographical dramas are high in numbers on this year’s list of Oscar nominations: Loving, Hacksaw Ridge, and Lion to name a few. It’s not at all surprising. They all feature lovable protagonists who boldly preserve thorough hard times and Hidden Figures is no different. It’s based on the real lives of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; three African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the famous 1960’s ‘Race for Space’. It’s not just a portrayal of the ladies’ mathematical genius but also of their struggle to find to a place in a predominantly white male industry.
The film is set in the height of the Space Race. After Russia successfully launches its first satellite, the pressure is on for NASA to do one better by sending the first human into space. No one feels this pressure more than Al Harrison, (Kevin Costner) director of NASA’s Space Task Group. His engineering team are responsible for manned space missions and are in need of a ‘computer’ (A.K.A mathematical whiz) to help perfect their calculations. Katherine (played by Taraji P. Henson) is assigned to their team to fill in this role. With racial segregation still in full effect and as the only black female on the team, she is not welcomed with open arms. Instead she’s met with looks of disbelief and horror & a huge lack of respect; the latter is courtesy of her uncooperative and bigoted colleague Paul (played by Jim Parsons). Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy, the supervisor of NASA’s West Area Computing Unit; a segregated department made up of all African-American female mathematicians. She’s taken over the role of supervisor since her previous one took time off sick but is refused a pay rise. Janelle Monáe plays Mary, the aspiring engineer who is forced to overcome a series of seemingly impossible hurdles in order to achieve her engineering dream.
Taraji and Janelle are absolute gems. Taraji’s strong performance isn’t too surprising given the accolades she’s been racking up recently however Janelle’s comes as quite a shock. When you hear of musicians crossing over to the acting world, it’s quite natural to roll your eyes and mutter ‘ just stay in your lane’. Janelle’s performance is a perfect rebuttal to that reaction. Her character Mary is no wallflower; she has a quick tongue and is outspoken to say the least. Janelle could have easily allowed her character to fit into the stereotypical ‘sassy black woman’ mould that Hollywood adores. Thankfully she doesn’t. She’s a delight to watch on-screen, making Mary as tenacious as she is funny. Dorothy’s storyline falls into the background slightly but this doesn’t stop Octavia shining through. Her scenes with Kirsten Dunst, who plays her supervisor, are some of the film’s strongest. Aside from the stellar performances, Hidden Figures has an added bonus; it’s surprisingly quite funny. Octavia, Janelle and Taraji are the perfect trio; they have great comedic timing which gives the film some real laugh out loud moments. The film maintains that perfect balance between drama and humour, keeping it funny enough to remain light but heavy enough so that the film’s core topic of racism carries real weight.
While director Theodore Melfi doesn’t do anything technically wowing, he can be definitely be given credit for highlighting the discrimination they face without any of the cast uttering a word; making it all the more heart-breaking. Katherine’s colleagues look disgusted when she pours herself some coffee from the communal coffee pot. After seeing their faces, it dawns on her that it’s communal for everyone but her. The next day she sees an additional coffee pot on the table labelled ‘coloured’ – which it turns out is completely empty. These moments of subtle silent discrimination become vocal as the film progresses, culminating in a chilling monologue from Taraji where her character Katherine confronts her bigoted co-workers. She delivers it with such conviction that it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand and in my case, the audience began to applaud as well.
Hidden Figures is a depiction of the integral part they played in helping America successfully launch its first satellite – followed by its first human- into Space. This kind of film is much needed in today’s tense political climate. Without being all soppy and sentimental, it just goes to show what incredible things can be achieved when people unite.