Hidden Figures

Three women standing in the foreground. In the background a rocket is launching.

Based on a true story. A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.

Hidden Figures’ is a film about three mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s and played key roles in the events of that decade, which as we all know, culminated in putting a man on the moon in 1969 (or didn’t, if you believe the conspiracy theorists!). That the three mathematicians happen to be black and female is what gives ‘Hidden Figures’ its edge, and its topic should be ripe for an exploration of the remarkable achievements of these women against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and an America where opportunities for black women were severely limited. ‘Hidden Figures’ does justice to its source material to an extent, and it’s an enjoyable movie led by some really good performances, but I felt a little disappointed in how safe it plays with its material and I felt it dulled the power of the story.

We begin with an introduction to Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) as their car breaks down on the way to work. A police officer stops to find out what’s going on, and his barely concealed racism subsides when he learns that the women all work at NASA. This opening epitomises the film’s approach to the racial issues of the time and I felt that ‘Hidden Figures’ downplayed the elements of racism in order to maintain the focus on the rousing, crowdpleasing aspects of its narrative. ‘Hidden Figures’ wants to be both a thrilling space race story and a commentary on the social issues of the time, but it gets caught between both elements and chooses to water down the latter to focus on the former. When it does fully lean into the challenges these women faced in their careers, the film reaches another level, such as a terrific angry diatribe from Taraji P. Henson after one too many lengthy trips to the ‘colored’ bathroom, but director Theodore Melfi often sugarcoats these moments in humour and I felt it was disingenuous. In many respects, ‘Hidden Figures’ reminded me of the worst aspects of ‘The Help’, another film that struggled with the compromise between delivering a mainstream movie for the masses and in being true to the experiences of the characters it depicts.

Fortunately, ‘Hidden Figures’, like ‘The Help’, has some wonderful performances, namely from its leading trio. Taraji P. Henson is terrific in arguably the biggest part, Janelle Monae performs like she’s being doing this for years, and I just love Octavia Spencer, who is wonderful once again. Alongside them you have Kevin Costner as a sympathetic authority figure, Jim Parsons playing Sheldon Cooper if he was alive in the 60s and brief but enjoyable turns from Mahershala Ali and Glen Powell. ‘Hidden Figures’ is an enjoyable movie with some really strong performances, and it tells a worthwhile and overlooked story that I suspect most people watching won’t have heard about beforehand (myself included), but in my opinion, it fell short in delivering on the story’s potential to be something truly powerful and special.

Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Theodore Melfi

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/

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