“Every time we get a chance to move ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” – Mary Jackson (Taraji P. Henson) in riveting Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures is the untold true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. It’s an intriguing premise for a movie, one that is fully executed by a focused script, smart direction, and sensational performances. Hidden Figures is led by lead Taraji P. Henson (TV’s Empire, Oscar nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner for The Help), and singer-actress Janelle Monae (Moonlight).
Hidden Figures begins with Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) as a little girl, and she is a mathematical genius. She stuns everyone in the classroom, including the teacher, with her mad math skills on the chalkboard. Cut to a couple decades later, and Katherine finds herself on the road after her car broke down with her two best friends Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). While trying to fix the car, a white policeman pulls over the assess the situation. After learning that the three women work for NASA, he scratches his head and says, “I had no idea they hired-“, to which Dorothy responds, “There are quite a few women working in the space program.”
It’s 1963 in Jim Crow America. There are separate bathrooms, water fountains, and even libraries for “Whites” and “Coloreds”. Dorothy leads a large group of African-American women in the “female colored” section of NASA, where they do tons and tons of math all day, and send their perfect equations to boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Dorothy basically is the supervisor to these women, but doesn’t have the supervisor title, and doesn’t get paid anywhere near as much as a supervisor should.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the team leader of mathematicians in the white section of NASA who is desperate to find the equation that will send the first man into space before the Russians do. NASA searches and searches for the right answer, leading Vivan to recruit Katherine to work with Al’s team. Katherine, visibly the only African-American women in a room full of dozens of white men, and one white women, works incredibly hard every single day, seeing “beyond the math”, while drinking coffee from a separate pot made just for her with the title “colored” labelled on top, and being forced to run a half a mile a day to use the “colored bathroom”. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary all work together and separately, directly helping the famous launch that sent John Glenn into space.
Hidden Figures is a marvel of a film. It’s a true story told exquisitely by director Theodore Melfi and writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. There isn’t a second wasted in telling the powerful narrative of the story, which closely follows Katherine’s journey in searching “beyond the math”, while commenting on race, gender, and class in an American era really not too long ago.
The three main characters, richly portrayed by Henson, Spencer, and Monae, all have their individual personal stories, all incredible. Henson finds love with a handsome war vet portrayed by Mahershala Ali (Both Ali and Monae starred together in last year’s mesmerizing Moonlight). Dorothy’s fight to save her girl’s jobs, learn the new IBM machine, and get the role of supervisor is a powerful feat. Vivian fights to be allowed to go to an all white school so she can get the credentials it takes to be a NASA engineer. The chemistry between all three actresses is astounding, and whenever they are on screen together it’s a joy, making it nearly impossible not to smile. Hidden Figures also features excellent supporting performances from Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, and Kevin Costner in a career best role.
Hidden Figures is a snapshot of what it meant to be African-American in Jim Crow America, an era that saw much change. It’s also a commentary on gender, noticeably in a scene where Al tells a room full of NASA employees to all go “call their wives”, when there are noticeably two women standing in the room right in front of him. In fact, women weren’t allowed to go to the upper level board meetings, causing for one of Henson’s standout scenes.
This is classic Hollywood storytelling. An emotional ride and an uplifting journey. It provides smart humor and deeply emotional moments one right after another. It took decades for this untold story to be told on screen, and one can only hope that more and more stories will come to light and be told in such a wonderful way. Hidden Figures follows three incredibly profound women on their journey to space, ultimately becoming on the year’s best films, and one that can be watched over and over again.