Early on within Hidden Figures, the lead statistician (Jim Parsons), aka The Big Bang Racist (just his character… I hope), feels the need to correct a member of senior leadership during a large group meeting. It’s a stupid and selfish comment, meant just to increase his own self-importance. A much lesser (and more common) movie would have set out to make this character a tortured genius that no one understands. Instead, the film makes the character a marker of white fragility, choosing alternatively to congratulate those who didn’t typically get credit for the work they did.
While there is no shortage of movies about America’s trip to the moon, Hidden Figures differentiates itself by examining some of the people who have been overlooked by mainstream history: particularly, the African-American women who provided significant mathematic data to NASA. Simultaneously, Hidden Figures is a meditation on 1960s racism in America, a case study for incredible minds and a patriotic tribute to the golden age of space travel. The movie itself isn’t constructed in any unconventional fashion, but the source material itself is so stimulating that the film can’t help but feel inspiring.
Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie cuts between three African-American friends/co-workers as they work towards separate, seemingly impossible goals within NASA. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has ambitions to be the first female African-American engineer but is unable to apply because she isn’t allowed to take the necessary classes at a segregated school. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is doing a supervisor’s work without the pay and is concerned about her staff’s job security with the installation of a new IBM computer. And Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the film’s primary focus as a mathematical savant who is being held back from her real potential.
Given the internal objectification of these women as “human computers,” it wouldn’t be difficult to play these characters as one-dimensional people with one-dimensional goals accidently. But the screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi develops each of the characters entirely. By cutting between each of the stories, the story stays engaging. Each of the three principal actors has moments to shine, and their arcs have been expanded in a natural way.
The one difficulty about telling a multi-character story is that the sense of timing becomes a little warped. Especially because the movie takes place over a period of several years, you have to rely only on what the film tells you. Considering that the film takes place during the space race, the timeline should be a little self-explanatory, but the movie can get a little disorienting as scenes taking places months apart are tacked on next to one another.
Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) has shown that he is capable of constructing competent stories, but his style still feels a little tame. Hidden Figures is his sophomore directorial attempt, and both of his films are essentially just an arrangement of clever dialogue and medium shots. There are some nicely filmed sequences in this movie (compared to St. Vincent, when movement seemed to be a bit of a struggle), but it still feels a little safe.
Similarly, Melfi’s films appear to thrive off of fantastic actors giving charismatic performances. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all a joy to watch from start to finish, but none of them give the jaw-dropping performances that would make this film their shining moment. In a way, it’s a bit of an unselfish move. They all put in the work to give the dialogue the life it deserves, even if it’s not the film that will win them individual accolades.
There’s an implied bittersweet ideology to Hidden Figures. The idea that despite all of their accomplishments, these women didn’t get the recognition they deserved until now. However, Hidden Figures doesn’t dwell on this idea, and instead focuses its energy on celebration and discovery. While the movie isn’t always ‘fun’ (because racism in the 1960s isn’t ‘fun,’ y’all), it is always engaging and meaningful. Although it’s not a movie that strays far from the technical norms, it is strikingly relevant in so many ways and deserves to be seen.