Hidden Figures, director Theodore Melfi’s second feature length film following 2014’s St. Vincent, is a little known true story about African American women who aided in the United States’ 1960’s space race against the Soviet Union based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film following three women, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who all work in the computers department for NASA in Langley, Virginia. Each woman excels in her position but begins the film drastically underemployed, both because of their gender and their race.
However, desperation from NASA’s Space Task Group, headed by the stoic and imposing Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), leads the division to look for a new “computer” (literally someone who runs and checks calculations, as computers as we know them now were in their infancy) in unconventional places. Enter Henson’s Katherine, a woman who has shown an extremely advanced understanding of mathematics from an early age, to prove herself as the missing piece in the U.S.’s attempts to overtake the Russians, who, at the film’s open, are ahead of the U.S. in all things space related. Katherine faces all the obstacles one would expect from a historical film taking place during the Civil Rights era: disdain and disapproval from her co-workers, segregation from her bathrooms to which coffee she can use and trying to prove she’s not simply good for a black woman, but simply that she’s one of the best there is regardless of her physical appearance.
Whilst Katherine is certainly the film’s focal point, she is portrayed as being best friends with the aforementioned Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who each face their own professional struggles that are also impeded by the color of their skin. All the women encounter hostility, racism and obstacles that are in the way of their dreams, but the film is adept at hitting the right beats when necessary and there is rarely doubt that these women will succeed, in spite of the odds being stacked against them.
Theodore Melfi’s script, co-written by Allison Schroeder, does not accomplish much in terms of originality or drama. It’s certainly praiseworthy for covering a truly “hidden” chapter of American history, but it does not depict the events in a way that’s particularly novel or challenging. The film has the structure of a warm dramedy, difficulties that stand in each woman’s way are overcome handily, and there are several laughs and moments of lightheartedness to counter the cruelty and insults that the women face from their white counterparts.
All this said, the film is carried by a superb lead turn by Taraji P. Henson, who elevates the film’s dialogue with her courageous, tear-inducing performance. Henson’s Katherine is vulnerable, but she’s too intelligent and headstrong to not achieve, even when faced with constant adversity.
Delivering her usual strong work in a secondary role, Octavia Spencer breathes life into Dorothy Vaughan as a cunning and caring leader, who looks out for the girls in the “colored computers” department as much as she does herself. Singer turned actress Janelle Monae holds her own amongst her acclaimed co-starts as the spunky Mary Jackson, and Kevin Costner gives a typically solid turn as Al Harrison, who serves as a moral compass among bigots.
While Hidden Figures can move a bit slow at times, and indeed has much more math speak than you’d expect, it’s a solid film that gives audiences a worthwhile message. Its PG-rating makes it a solid and educational movie for the little ones, and the film’s standout performances make it worth the trip for adults. The beats and conflicts here are well-worn, and the film almost pays as much homage to John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell) as the “hidden figures” themselves, but the lessons this film conveys are as relevant now as they were in 1961.