Hidden Figures is classic Oscar-bait – based on a true story, loaded with exposition and emotional shouting, and led by an award-winning cast. And though it may come as a surprise, it’s also one of the most affecting and enjoyable films of the summer.
Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) has always been the smartest person in any given room, owing to her prodigious mathematical skills. But in the divided Virginia of 1961, the colour of her skin dictates her station, as it does those of co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). As NASA endeavor to put a man into Earth’s orbit, the trio become unexpectedly crucial to the mission’s success.
There could not be a more timely film about the past. Goble is a black single mother fighting for respect in a casually vicious working environment; Vaughan is doing more than her pay cheque’s worth of work, and always looking out for her colleagues; and Jackson is striving to be recognized for her skills in a state where blacks cannot go to the same schools as whites. Post-Black Lives Matter, it’s a story America needs to hear, as these battles are far from over. As Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge) puts it, “Civil rights ain’t always civil,” but our lead trio are, forging forward with grace, dignity and ingenuity despite the odds. One adorable sequence involves Levi innocently mansplaining a mechanical pencil to his engineer wife – Monáe’s beatific expression says it all.
Director/co-writer Theodore Melfi draws a subtle correlation to the importance of science’s looking outward, in an age where experts and astronauts are resented and sidelined. In the words of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.”
Impressively, the screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder covers the whole gamut of opposition faced by African-Americans – from the outwardly racist (segregation and staring); to white allies (Harrison); to the more insidious, unintended prejudice of people like Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). In a defining moment, Mitchell says, “I have nothing against y’all,” and Vaughan floors the audience by saying, “I know you probably believe that.”
But why quote the film so often in a review? It draws attention to how quoteworthy Melfi and Schroeder’s script is, loaded with phrases you could slap on a bumper sticker. These are the catch cries for a generation of black women, and for anyone who believes in the fight for equal rights. What an incredible moment in cinema history, for Monáe and the near-mythic Mahershala Ali to star in this film and its co-nominee for Best Picture, Moonlight.
It also boasts the grooviest soundtrack of the year, cobbled together from the triggering work of Hans Zimmer and the ’60s funk stylings of Pharrell Williams, somehow both contemporary and current. Not to mention that it takes a lot to get this critic engaged in a film featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, a bit player dwarfed by star turns from Glen Powell, Costner and Ali.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures rests on the accomplishments of Henson, Spencer, Monáe and the incredible women whom they portray. It gets the feet moving, the heart pumping, the laughs coming and the story of black America pushing further into the light. And it’s made more at the American box office than Hollywood throwback La La Land. Cinema needs these figures, and thanks to their story, they’ll never be hidden again.