Starring-Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer
Scott’s Review #619
Reviewed February 26, 2017
Hidden Figures is a mainstream, “Hollywood” style film that is produced, written, and acted very well. It is a film that tells of three female African American mathematicians who faced many struggles and were rather overlooked at the time, the early 1960’s. The women achieved historical success and were instrumental in allowing John Glenn to orbit planet Earth. From a film perspective, the story is feel-good, but does not feel contrived- in fact it feels quite fresh, and features a wonderful ensemble cast with nice chemistry. I enjoyed this film immensely.
Blessed with good smarts, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Henson), are fortunate enough to work for the Langley Research Center – the time is 1961. In those days, segregation still existed and the women worked as temporary workers and used separate “colored” bathrooms and were largely excluded from the white workers. The three women are best friends and drive to work together- each of them has an individual specialty and the film focuses on each woman’s story.
The larger role and main story is about Katherine. Since the Russians had achieved success in outer space already, the race was on for the United States to follow suit. Katherine is assigned as a “computer” in the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Initially, Katherine is dismissed by her colleagues, but eventually is accepted due to her smarts. In sub-plots, Dorothy struggles to be given a Supervisor position, and Mary aspires to be the first female engineer, despite needing entry into an all-white school to take necessary classes.
My favorite of the three performances is of Taraji P. Henson. The actress impresses with her spunky, well-mannered, portrayal, and specifically her fantastic scene when she has simply had enough of the segregation and the difficulty in performing her job. She loses it in front of the entire team and rails against them- expecting to lose her job, instead her boss Al, (a fantastic nice-guy role for Costner), sees her point and declares NASA will see no distinction of color. Henson is the lead actress in the film and carries it well.
The chemistry between the three actresses is what allows Hidden Figures to work so well and come off as believable. The women always have each others backs and are friends outside of work- attending church and picnics together. In fact, the film is smart to feature the women’s lives outside of their professions. A nice side story of single mother Katherine (her husband having died) meeting and being courted in lovely fashion by handsome National Guard Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) is a sweet story, genuinely told. The two also have nice chemistry together.
The films finale as the attempted launch of John Glenn is met with problems, is compelling. Due to the genius of Katherine, she must save the day as Glenn trusts only her judgment and calculations of the ever so important numbers. The scene is a “just desserts” moment for Katherine as the country rallies behind the events in patriotic fashion.
Hidden Figures plays it safe and the true struggles of the real women undoubtedly had darker and meaner situations as the discrimination they faced had to have been more intense, but the film strives to downplay some of the grit in favor of light hearted, crowd-pleasing fare, but I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and enjoyed the film ride that I was given.