I finished 2016 with two terrific movies, LA LA LAND (2016) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016). Now, to begin 2017, I’ve seen a movie equally as good as those two.
HIDDEN FIGURES is an exceptional movie, even better than some critics are giving it credit for.
HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1960s and were instrumental in launching the space campaign, specifically the first orbiting flight by astronaut John Glenn.
It’s the early 1960s, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as “human computers,” toiling in the background, working nonstop to verify the math for their white male superiors.
Katherine’s big break comes when she goes to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who’s leading a frustrated group of NASA scientists and mathematicians, fighting a losing battle against a Soviet space program which seems to celebrate one success after another, while NASA is stuck in failure.
At one point in the film, Harrison says he refuses to believe that the Soviets are smarter and better than his people, and he interprets this to mean they’re not working hard enough, and so he puts his team on notice that they will work nonstop and through weekends until they get the job done.
Katherine’s math skills soon become noticeable not only to Harrison but also to astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who after meeting her is so impressed he later personally requests her expertise to validate the math before he makes his historic flight into space.
Katherine’s achievements are all the more impressive because she has to overcome both racial and gender prejudices to accomplish them. For instance, she has to suffer through the indignity of having a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” which no one will even touch. There’s also no “colored” bathrooms in the building, so in order to use the bathroom she has to run nearly six blocks in her heels and back, something that is not noticed until Harrison chews her out for being missing from her desk for so long. When he asks her where she goes, she tells him the bathroom, to which he snaps at her about what the heck takes her so long. Which sets up one of the best scenes in the movie where she lets loose in an emotional tirade where she finally explains the whole bathroom situation.
An equally powerful scene follows where we see Harrison take a sledge-hammer to the “colored” bathroom sign, declaring “No more segregated bathrooms. We all pee the same color at NASA.”
Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself working as a supervisor to the “computers” but without the title or the pay which the position warrants. Later, when an IBM computer is installed at NASA, with plans on replacing the human computers, Dorothy takes the initiative to read up on the device, and she self-teaches herself to the point where she can operate the machine better than the IBM technicians. She use this new knowledge to keep her “girls” employed, as she trains them how to operate the IBM computers.
And Mary Jackson, inspired by her superior, a Jewish man who tells her not to give up, that twenty years earlier he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and now he’s sending rockets to the moon, attempts to earn a college degree so she can join her fellow mathematicians and not simply be a human computer. But to do so she will need to attend an all white school, which means she needs a judge to give her special permission.
HIDDEN FIGURES is an inspiring movie that works on multiple levels. It has a lot to say about race relations and overcoming prejudices, as well as what it took to make NASA’s early space flights a success. It’s SELMA (2014) meets APOLLO 13 (1995).
The acting is wonderful.
Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine G. Johnson. Henson makes Katherine a strong-willed woman who is both a single mother and a brilliant mathematician. She also shows off the character’s vulnerabilities, and we get to see her softer side in a romance subplot where she becomes involved with a handsome military man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). She also makes Katherine, in spite of her nerdiness, adorable and sexy .
Henson currently stars in the TV show EMPIRE, and she previously starred in the show PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2015). I last saw her in the movie NO GOOD DEED (2014), a thriller in which she co-starred with Idris Elba, a film that I didn’t like very much. She didn’t wow me at all in that movie, but here in HIDDEN FIGURES she’s brilliant.
Octavia Spencer is nearly as good as Dorothy Vaughan, who is probably the strongest of the three women and is seen as the glue which holds them together. Spencer won an Oscar for her supporting role in THE HELP (2011), and while she probably won’t win an Oscar here, she’s still very good.
Equally as powerful as Henson and Spencer is Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. As Jackson, Monae gets some of the best lines in the movie. Her scene in court as she attempts to convince a white judge to rule in her favor, to allow her to attend class at an all-white school, is also one of the more powerful scenes in the film.
Kevin Costner adds strong support as hard-nosed NASA man Al Harrison. He’s abrupt, no-nonsense, and heartless, and so later when even he is won over by Katherine, it’s all the more impressive.
Jim Parson, Sheldon on the TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY, plays it straight here as Paul Stafford, a white mathematician working for Al Harrison who feels jealous and threatened by Katherine. He does a nice job in the role. Glen Powell also enjoys some fine moments as young astronaut John Glenn, a performance made even more touching since Glenn just passed away on December 8, 2016.
And Mahershala Ali who seems to be popping up everywhere these days also adds distinguished support as Colonel Jim Johnson, the man who falls in love with Katherine. Ali has been equally impressive on the TV shows HOUSE OF CARDS as Remy Danton, and as the villain “Cottonmouth” on the stylish Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE. Of course, Ali is also starring in the highly touted and critically acclaimed movie MOONLIGHT (2016) a film which is expected to compete for Best Picture this year. It’s a film I missed, because sadly, it did not play near me for very long.
Kirsten Dunst also shows up as Vivien Mitchell, the woman who Dorothy and her “human computers” have to report to, and she’s not too sympathetic to their plight, at least not at first. Dunst is in her thirties now. It seems like only yesterday she was Mary Jane in the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies. Time flies.
Theodore Melfi does a fine job directing this one. It looks good as a 1960s period piece, and Melfi makes full use of some vivid colors here. He also does a nice job balancing the stories of the three women. Melfi’s previous film was ST. VINCENT (2014), a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, a film I liked a lot. I enjoyed HIDDEN FIGURES even more.
Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay to HIDDEN FIGURES, along with Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a strong script which strikes a nice balance between a story about race relations, prejudice, against both race and gender, and an exciting tale about the early space program. It also works as a character study of the three women in the story, as we really get to know and like these women a lot.
Some critics have complained that this movie doesn’t get dark enough, that the race issues are glossed over and sugar-coated to earn the film’s PG rating. I disagree. The sequence, for example, involving Katherine’s having to use a “colored” bathroom in a building located six blocks from where she works is powerful as is. You don’t need bloodshed and strong language to get the point.
As such, with a PG rating, the important message that HIDDEN FIGURES presents can also be viewed by those younger than 13 years old.
HIDDEN FIGURES is a powerful movie, with a lot to say about race relations. It also delivers a positive and much-needed message to the world today, a world where race still divides rather than unites.
2017 has just begun. There are a lot more movies to go, but HIDDEN FIGURES was the first movie I saw this year, and it’s instantly one of my favorites.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.