Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parson, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell
Names like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Buzz Aldrin are household names thanks to their bravery and willingness to go into space. What about all of those behind the scenes unsung heroes that made it all possible? That’s the idea behind Hidden Figures as it looks at three African-American women who were pioneers at NASA, and yet, no one knows their story. In an aptly used flashback moment that opens the movie, we’re told that even at a young age Katherine Johnson (Henson) was a math prodigy. That year was 1926 and she was offered a full scholarship to an academy thanks to her genius ways with numbers. Her math skills would later be put to good use at NASA. It’s 1961 and the Russians are gaining momentum with Sputnik, and the U.S. is desperately trying to mark their place in space history. Katherine, along with her friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) all work for NASA but have been allocated to the basement offices due to their race.
All three women have the tenacity and will power to move ahead in the company despite the opposition they face. Dorothy would love to become a supervisor for her “girls” as she’s already doing the work without the title. Mary is poised to become an engineer, yet NASA makes it all the more problematic when new guidelines are put in place in terms of the educational requirements, which Mary doesn’t have. It’s only Katherine who seems to be able to make some momentum at advancing her career when she’s given a new position in the analytics team. As you can imagine, this ruffles the feathers of her white male colleagues. The clock is ticking at NASA and John Glenn’s mission on the Friendship 7 is quickly approaching. All three women set out to make their voices heard and put themselves forward to help the launch and recovery of the Friendship 7.
As you’ve probably already surmised, Hidden Figures tells a full story and doesn’t cut corners on honoring the lives of these three women. This is Theodore Melfi’s second full-length film following St. Vincent. He co-wrote the screenplay and opens the story up to what’s going on in the world around them to remind audiences that this was a racially charged time. There are discussions of what happened during the Civil Rights Movement and how segregation played a part of these women’s lives. Melfi makes the opposition they faced apparent whether it’s subtly in smaller moments or in larger pivotal scenes. There’s a repeated bit involving Katherine having to sprint to the other side of the NASA campus to use the colored women’s bathroom. Part of Mary’s plight is fighting to take night classes at an all-white school.
Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder inject the film with enough sass and humor to find an appropriate balance against the more serious elements of the time period. It’s another attempt at showing how these women are not to be messed with or taken advantage of despite their race and gender. They have written great banter between the three women showing off the playful side to their friendship. This definitely comes into play with a side plot of Katherine’s as she starts dating an extremely good-looking vet (Ali) whom they meet at a church potluck.
Melfi has a great ensemble on his hands and his film works well due to the chemistry they all have and the teamwork that’s set in place to get John Glenn into space. He’s given his three leads enough material to work with instead of keeping it all focused on Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson. It’s a smart role for her to take on to counter her work as Cookie Lyon on Empire. Octavia Spencer plays into her strengths as the funny but no-nonsense Dorothy. I also found myself drawn to Janelle Monáe as she’s the newcomer of the group. She’s proving to be a natural on screen with her role as Mary and as part of the ensemble cast in Moonlight. There are a few antagonists in the film played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst. Both work at NASA and try to reduce the trio down by making it a point to remind the women of their roles. I’m wondering if and when Parsons will get sick of playing the smart science guy.
Hidden Figures is a feel good kind of movie that’s sandwiched into theaters between a crop of heavier films. Theodore Melfi covers a lot of ground to give a complete picture, but it feels a tad longer than it needs to be. It’s great to see a film showcase the power these three women had to take chances, defy expectations, and take matters into their own hands. It’s an inspiring film to show to young girls or boys who feel like their voices aren’t heard or need a true life example of someone like them making a difference in the world. It also provides an accessible history lesson for younger generations who don’t remember a time when bathrooms, restaurants, and marriage were separated due to the color of your skin.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Bring the whole family to see an uplifting film about three women whose contributions to NASA and space travel should not be ignored.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS