Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst
Studio: Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment and Fox 2000 Pictures.
Prepare to be moved, and I mean really moved, in fact, get ready to be over the moon with awe at the story Hidden Figures, based on true events, tells. Hidden Figures accounts the challenges and obstacles three ambitious and driven black women face and overcome and charts America’s campaign to navigate and stay ahead in the Space Race during the 1960s.
Each of the three smart and skilled protagonists are on their own different journeys within their jobs at NASA, all hindered by their ethnicity in some way. Janelle Monae plays tenacious Mary Jackson in her quest to become an engineer. She needs a further qualification to add to her already noteworthy credentials, a qualification she can only obtain by attending night classes at a local high school, which according to West Virginia law, only accepts white males.
Octavia Spencer stars as the quietly determined and underappreciated Dorothy Vaughn, who’s on a quest to be recognised as and fairly paid for the work she does, as a Supervisor.
Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Johnson sees her graduating from making basic calculations in the background to assisting the elite Space Task Group in calculating rocket trajectories, a job that plays a vital role in the historic launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and keeping America first in the momentous Space Race.
I had the privilege of seeing Hidden Figures at Hebden Bridge Picture House, after the film’s initial release in mainstream cinemas had managed to pass me by. A movie theatre that charmingly emulates the look and feel of a classic old-style cinema, with the vintage red curtain vibe, leg room galore, coffee on sale and traditional movie ticket stubs dished out, you’re treated to a truly authentic cinema experience and I’d strongly urge anyone who finds themselves in the West Yorkshire area to check it out. Like the charismatic venue, the film itself didn’t disappoint.
Entertaining humour sprinkled throughout the film from the sassy and strong spirit of the three main characters armed with a sharp-witted script makes for an amusing watch and highlights the close camaraderie of the three friends, which you can’t help but find amicable.
The humour, however, does not make light of their current position and status in society. Each actress shines in her own unique way and is given sufficient screen time to do so, which is what makes this film so great- it captures different aspects of the struggle for racial equality.
Widowed mother Katherine’s segregation plight is summed up perfectly in a moving scene in which everything she’s kept bottled up, every time she’s bitten her tongue and meekly muttered “Yes Sir/Madam”, erupts in front of all her colleagues when her fair but results-driven manager (Kevin Costner) asks her where she disappears to for 40 minutes every day. Turns out she pops off to the bathroom- the coloured bathroom that is, the nearest one being located about 1 and a half miles away. A cringe-worthy outburst, but one that’s rewarded with Costner’s character amusingly attacking the sign for the ‘coloured bathroom’ with a hammer, affording his character much respect.
The standout shot that really captivates the shifting of growing regard for Katherine as an equal depicts Costner’s white male hand passing a piece of chalk into Katherine’s nail polished and dainty feminine coloured hand, effectively giving her the floor so her remarkable mathematical equations could ensue on the blackboard, evoking conclusions that those behind the scenes are integral no matter what their ethnicity.
Janelle Monae’s Mary thrives when she articulates her case very well and sticks it to the judge, arguing that if an American is going to be the first to orbit the Earth or stand on the moon, why can’t she be the first coloured woman in the state to attend night classes at an all-white school? Change is sometimes necessary and somebody has got to be the first.
Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy wins audiences over with her message to her sons of not just rolling over and accepting that ‘that’s just the way things are’ after borrowing a book to help her further her knowledge at work from the ‘whites-only’ section as the coloured section didn’t have the resources she needed, arguing that if she’s paid for those books with her taxes, how can it be classified as stealing? Instead of giving up, she urges her children to peacefully fight for progress, to challenge and question.
All three women, Dorothy especially, provide us with a refreshingly different slant on the steps that were taken towards equality and acceptance, achieved, in part, through intelligence and the confidence to display that intellect to win people over by pure merit to achieve parity, rather than the civil rights movements characterised by violence, that, although true and important, have often been dramatised or romanticized and immortalised in film or other forms of media.
Their actions send the simple message that coloured people and women were (and are!) just as valuable assets to the human race as white men. Dorothy, for instance, has the foresight and vision to learn how to programme NASA’s IBM 7090 machine that threatens to replace her and the colleagues in her own time. Eventually, after training her co-workers, she ensures their careers still have a future. Their story also serves as a testament to the fact that the mind, creativity and imagination, transcends the superficial external shell of our skin colour and gender.
A nod has to go to the astronauts’ incredible bravery, going where no men had boldly gone before, the risk they take portrayed with impressive visuals spliced with authentic newsreel footage of rocket launches that united Americans of all races in excitement.
With subtle signs of racial separation being dotted throughout scenes, sadly appearing commonplace such as different buses and even water fountains for coloured people, Hidden Figures is powerful enough to make you physically incensed at the injustice of it all and quite frankly the illogical nature of depriving the world of advancements, innovation and developments by restricting the rights and opportunities of a large proportion of the population.
Kirsten Dunst’s Mrs Mitchell, Dorothy’s superior, even goes so far as saying: “Despite what you may think I don’t have anything against y’all” to which Dorothy replies: “I genuinely think you believe that” hinting at how segregation wasn’t personal in America but a daily way of life ingrained into their culture, their citizens just following laws and happened to be born on right side of the tracks in terms of the ethnicity cards life had dealt them. It also highlights how America, despite carving out a reputation for itself as a rising superpower on the global stage, was desperately lagging behind in racial common sense.
But this review isn’t a pre-civil rights America bashing or feminist rant. On the contrary, I believe this movie is a filmic reminder of how far Western societies have come. Women, Hidden Figures is truly an enlightening, exhilarating and empowering experience. Men, your gender also made a large contribution to NASA’s accomplishments and so it’s an insightful watch for all. And everyone can get to see how Jim Parsons fares when he’s not playing the impossibly irritating yet hilarious Sheldon Cooper!