Review: Hidden Figures
Representation matters so much more than we often give it credit. For many Black people, Hidden Figures will be the first time they see people who look like them in roles that look like this. Science, math, achievement, patriotism—these are not themes often depicted in representations of the Black experience on film. But even setting aside the importance of the story, making history compelling to a modern audience is never an easy task. You must take people whose lives unfolded in a different era and make their needs, wants and motivations universal. Such is the case with Hidden Figures, which takes three extraordinary figures and makes them human. And just when the audience sees them as human, the super-human nature of their feats sets in. It is at once remarkable and relatable; understandable and unimaginable. That it melds all of this into a story that goes beyond the usual “feel-good” is a testament to the talents of all involved.
The film tells the story of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played beautifully by Janelle Monáe). Each is an African-American woman working at NASA during America’s ‘space race’ with the Soviet Union. While Katherine is a math prodigy who works on the critical launch and re-entry calculations, she must still endure the hardships that come with being both Black and a woman in a workplace that is decidedly neither. Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, an aspiring supervisor and computer programmer, each face similar challenges due to their sex and race.
Throughout the film they are met with resistance as they try to do their jobs and rise up the ranks of NASA. Whether in the form of doubting men or legal hurdles, the film gives each woman challenges to overcome in their distinct character arcs.
One of the major strengths of the film is that each of the women’s three stories feels like it could have been the source of its own movie. There is such strong material in these women’s struggle to overcome a system that tries to hold them down. It is ushered along by a soaring soundtrack produced by the incomparable Pharrell Williams. There are moments when the songs so perfectly capture the energy of the scene that it is as if they were truly conceived together—instead of one being in response to the other.
All of the performances here are strong, but Janelle Monae is a revelation. Even having seen her in Moonlight, it was still difficult to anticipate she had this level of acting ability. Her character is the sass of the bunch, but she brings a real depth beyond the pithy one-liners. She is given multiple snide remarks and witty retorts, but it is in the moments of heartfelt candor she really shines. Her courtroom plea to the humanity of a judge she needs on her side is the stuff that sparks careers. Hopefully we are lucky enough to see much more from her in the coming years.
If there is a major knock on this film, it is that some elements of the screenplay are fairly on the nose. So many scenes end with a too-clever punchline that it starts to feel monotonous. There is also the somewhat lazy tactic of giving each white antagonist their moment to atone for their misdeeds throughout the movie. While such a Disney-fied version of prejudice might be superficially satisfying, it also serves to undercut the visceral pain you feel watching Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan explain racism to her kids or Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson’s exasperation at the the mounting obstacles placed in her path. While a more real finish to the film would have been more satisfying to me, it is hard to argue with the final product here. The end-result is imminently watchable, emotionally invigorating and filled with so much to love.
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