“Hidden Figures” is a rousing story of unsung heroism adapted with the mass appeal of a colouring book. With stirring performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe; this story of overcoming adversity and prejudice for the greater prosperity of mankind is presented with an intentional and sickly honey covering.
In the midst of the space race, in the time immediately before gargantuan, caravan sized computers could perform 24000 calculations a minute; mathematical wizards were employed to compute and crunch the numbers to make this theoretical science a reality. Those computers, the NASA engine room, were largely invisible African American women, until now.
In a way the writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (who directs) harness the beacons of light in the story - the three central characters and the accomplishment of sending men to space and to the moon - as a means to wash away the darkness and oppression of the civil rights movement. Melfi’s approach to the film is typified in a moment when Dorothy (Spencer) interrupts her friend Mary (Monáe) from a tirade about the injustice of not being able to attend a school to further her education and fulfil her career potential. To paraphrase, she tells her to stop talking and be active in taking it to the next level. “Hidden Figures” doesn’t have time to wallow, it’s a showcase of its stars.
Henson (she’d probably prefer ‘Taraji’) is just divine. There’s a dignity and charm in the way that she presents Katherine Johnson that you can’t help but be endeared to her struggle. Director Melfi and Henson work together to set the audience up like pins awaiting a strike. Spencer adds a swagger to her profoundly pragmatic and action oriented Dorothy Vaughn. When the technology is storming towards her, she embraces the flow of the change and starts studying how to use and interact with her robotic successors. Monáe’s Mary Jackson is fierce. She’s the most forthright and ambitious of the trio, wielding her mind and sexual powerful with sass. She gives the best glimpse into what must have been the frustrating discontent of her generation.
Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison becomes that all-American man tasked to bridge the gap between the institutional racism of NASA and the future. Human endeavour evidently, is more important than using your assigned bathroom. While he’s forced to carry out some pretty clunky gestures that signify change (smashing down the ‘coloured’ bathroom sign) happening throughout the film; he’s one who doesn’t smack of racist thoughts. The same cannot be said for Jim Parsons. “Hidden Figures” definitely gave me further incentive to a) hate “Big Bang Theory” and b) feel like that Sheldon fellow the most naturally racist character actor going around. Parsons plays apathetic numbers wizard Paul Stafford with his same flare for high functioning sociopaths that he’s been curating in prime time. May someone please refer him to Dr. Lector. Thanks. (P.S Mads is my homeboy)
There’s a universal enchantment associated with the human effort and scientific glory of sending man into outer space. “Hidden Figures” brings these previously unduly invisible women to centre stage. They are dignified; they are intelligent, they are essential to the canon of one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. And if the overwhelming international box office and awards won so far; there overdue appearance on centre stage is very welcome.