- Category: Volume 88 (Fall 2016 - Spring 2017)
- Published: 01 February 2017
- Written by BRIDGET NOCERA | STAFF WRITER
“Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line,” said the fiery Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) in the recently released Hidden Figures. This quote and more is what makes the film so poignant: even an early 1960s set story is still strikingly relevant today, for better or worse. Hidden Figures is a heartfelt, sometimes corny, but always inspiring story that is finally getting its opportunity to be told.
Directed and written by Theodore Melfi, and based off the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the plot follows the little known true story of three brilliant, female, African American mathematicians: shy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), determined Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and outspoken Mary Jackson. The three friends attempt to move up the ranks at NASA, while the contentious Space Race between the United States and Russia barrels on, as does the continuing discrimination against not only African Americans, but women.
Katherine faces doubt at her new post in the almost all white and all male Flight Research Division, Dorothy struggles to be promoted to supervisor while also facing losing her job due to new technology, and Mary must confront the courts while also trying to become the first black engineer at NASA. Melfi, writer and director of the 2014 film starring Bill Murray, St. Vincent, knows how to craft a briskly paced, entertaining film. He has the benefit of three well-written storylines composed of fascinating characters at his disposable, and moves between them gracefully. The film is also shot beautifully, with grand scenes from the NASA campus in Virginia to the woman’s humble homes in suburbia.
The writing behind Hidden Figures is where the film falters occasionally. Screenwriters Melfi and Allison Schroeder excel when it comes to fleshing out our heroines, yet tend to fall susceptible to the occasional schmaltz. If you’re looking for a gritty, hyper realistic biopic, this is not the film for you. Hidden Figures generally focuses on the work the women do, like Katharine doing extensive equations on a blackboard and Dorothy studying up on the newest type of super computer, but also includes some behind the scenes looks at their personal lives. Scenes of the woman gossiping at a church function and setting an awkward Katharine up with the handsome Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) might seem unnecessary, but are still absolutely charming and essential in making these women seem dynamic and real.
Surprisingly, Hidden Figures transcends it’s occasional layer of cheese with a poignant portrayal of racial discrimination. The film never becomes heavy handed in how it shows Jim Crow laws at work. One excellent scene is in which Katharine, now working in a primarily white building, has to run miles across the NASA compound to reach the “colored” women’s restroom. As she sprints in her kitten heels and preppy dresses while carrying pounds of paperwork in order to finish her work as she uses the bathroom, we witness her struggle in an original, amusing, yet upsetting way. When Katharine eventually gets fed up with this treatment, it makes it all the more rewarding for the viewer. We witness all the types of discrimination, big and small, that women face, like having to use a completely separate coffee machine to just small microaggressions from coworkers, and it is all very well done.
Similarly, Hidden Figures is unexpectedly relevant today. Stories of black Americans, and more specifically, black women, are hard to come by. Katharine, Dorothy, and Mary were real life figures who shaped the Space Race and NASA thanks to their work, yet it took years for their stories to even be acknowledged in the media, let alone your average textbook. Seeing their stories unfold is not only inspiring to all, but also incredibly important.
The main actors of the film are also fantastic, and have palpable chemistry together. If you only know Henson from her character ‘Cookie’ on the television show Empire, prepare to be thrown for a loop. Henson is perfect as the hesitant math prodigy whose work speaks louder than her own voice. Her determination to succeed despite the world going against her is amazing to experience, and she is a great foil to the much more boisterous Dorothy and Mary. Speaking of, Spencer is a delight as Dorothy, who keeps her calm while also being the most cunning person in the room. Finally, Monáe, known mainly as a musician, is remarkable as Mary. She’s a spitfire through and through, and Monáe not only has great comedic timing, but can also hit the dramatic beats the film throws at her. On the sidelines, Kevin Costner as the big boss at NASA, Kirsten Dunst as a stern co-worker, and Mahershala Ali as the charming colonel are reliable performers that add great depth to the film overall.
The fun, funky music crafted by Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, and Hans Zimmer. The score is typical Zimmer fare, but Williams’ original songs are high notes. Combining old school sounds with present day flair is what Pharrell does best, and it shows throughout the film. “Runnin’” and “Able” are memorable anthems that perfectly compliment the film, while also having the ability to stand on their own.
In the end, Hidden Figures should absolutely be recognized by audiences. It’s an inspiration tale that is rarely told, and hopefully it’s overwhelming success creates a wave of more diverse stories being brought to the big screen. Even though the film’s problems might still be faced today, it’s an excellent reminder that sometimes, the quietest, sometimes forgotten voices can make the biggest difference.
image taken from www.complex.com