Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Hidden Figures is unashamedly feel good. The optimism of the early sixties and the space race, the wholesome family and domestic scenes and the downright intimidating heroics of the three leading women combine into an experience that will leave only the coldest hearts without at least a half smile.
It’s not a challenging film by any means, which is surprising considering the painful era of American history it deals with, so grizzled veterans of Selma and Malcolm X may find this film a little soft. I would also not be cynical, I expect, to mention it’s conspicuously Oscar-proximate release date. I still got a lot out of Hidden Figures, however, as a biopic; an affectionate portrait of what I can only describe as three extraordinary women.
Although Kirsten Dunst gives a surprisingly good Texan accent, and Kevin Costner brings some interesting quirks to the hard-nosed NASA manager role (Jim Parsons is a total disappointment; it’s just a rehash of Sheldon Cooper, but less interesting), the film belongs to Taraji Henson, Octavia Spenser and Janelle Monae, who play Katherine, Dorothy and Mary respectively. I must admit, I am a sucker for the sass and banter characteristic of women in the 1960’s African American community, and the three bring it out perfectly – it’s probably among the best performances in the film. The spirit of these characters stands out distinctly against the hardships they face, and the dignity and determination portrayed by Henson and company is a testament to the real life women they represent.
I was concerned going in that the writers might have relied too much on that dignity, as so many black characters in civil rights films become defined only by their struggles. It was pleasant to watch, then, the ways in which the ladies status as talented mathematicians also informed their characters – Mary is methodical (Monáe), solving problems one at a time; Dorothy (Spencer) is cunning, seeing the bigger picture and working the system to her own ends; Katherine (Henson) is dogged, suffering outbursts and setbacks but winning through via sheer talent. I’ll admit, I was about ready to criticise the film for being overly romantic; until, of course, it turned out to be, more or less, a true story. If the performances of the leading women had a downside, it’s the effect on the rest of the cast.
After watching Hidden Figures, I am lead to believe that NASA employed a large team of white scientists to do nothing at all but look stupid and be racist while Katherine launched the rocket all by herself. I know, I know, it’s a petty quibble; but some scenes, where literally no-one but the main characters seem to be capable of speaking are downright jarring. My other major criticism is the pacing of the film. Although I liked the attention to Katherine’s personal life, all the church attending, picnic going and adorable young children tucking in drags the middle of the film a little thin. I feel I’ve seen the love story about a million times, which isn’t such a criticism except for the terribly interesting rocket science it feels like it detracts from.
All in all, I’m glad that I saw Hidden Figures, and I’m even more glad it came out with a PG rating. It’s good for kids to have access to this kind of thing; a gentle way into the realities of segregation and civil rights before they’re traumatised by Roots in school. Good acting and a fun soundtrack carry a simple but effective story, and if you’re in the mood for it, a veritable river of positivity will burst through your screen when you watch Hidden Figures.
Featured Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox