Numbers are indiscriminate. Relatively speaking. The year is 1961. The United States of America is in a race with Russia to put an astronaut into space. But, they are hitting quite a few snags in the process. They simply do not have the manpower, or possibly the mindpower, to break through.
Three brilliant African-American females mathematicians in Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are assigned to various departments to helm Langley’s efforts to launch one of its own into the stratosphere. All are qualified, but each face difficulties in getting their peers to accept them as equals. But the mission takes precedence, and hitting its intended target means putting aside any hate and coming together as a unit.
Needing for a Disney-live movie that isn’t made by Disney? Hidden Figures does the trick, a true story that pays good tribute to amazing women. Well, relatively true. It’s sound in all areas without being extraordinary in any, either. Nothing wrong with playing it safe and filling a purpose.
The title of Hidden Figures serves as a double meaning. The movie’s core plot revolves around finding the math that doesn’t yet exist to propel a shuttle into space. But on a more figurative sense, for myself, I sadly had never heard of these women, but I suspect a good deal have not, either, effectively making these women almost ghost-like in the annals of history. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) takes the quarterback manager approach here. There’s little that catches the eye cinematically, but it’s certainly competent. Producer Pharrell Williams provides a few high spots with original songs that fit the 1960’s setting perfectly.
Melfi lets the story of Hidden Figures, adapted from the nonfiction book with the same name, tell itself. However, there are obvious embellishments and prints of Hollywood that are left on the production. Hidden Figures does a good job at showcasing the institutional racism that permeated the time period, the small things that made life difficult for African-Americans, and women in a male-dominated field. But, Hidden Figures becomes hokey at times with specific moments and certain characters who didn’t exist. This is not the film to get hyper-accurate history from.
Still, the lead characters of Hidden Figures provide some insight into these troubling times, and though they all work towards the same mission, all three women have their own storylines that the film addresses. It helps that each of the three actresses pull off great performances to make their characters likable and believable. Taraji P. Henson is the standout of the entire picture, and now seeing the list, it is a little disappointing to not see her get a Best Actress nomination; she’s that good with the requisite award scene that plays for a nominee that feels completely natural in the movie. The surprise is Janelle Monáe, who was good in Moonlight but has more to do here, and might be more deserving of the supporting nod than the über-consistent Octavia Spencer who did receive the nod.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, most end up playing the evil white person or misguided white person who thinks they mean well but actually do not. At least for many of the central characters at Langley, this applies. As such, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are playing parts and not so much characters to give life to, though Dunst is a little more impressive with what she is given. On the other side of the spectrum of characters at Langley lies Kevin Costner’s (no one’s going to accuse him of having questionable views in Hollywood!), just a guy who’s about the job regardless of skin color. Costner’s character is good, even if a scene borders on being the aforementioned hokey. Aldis Hodge and Mahershala Ali provide solid yet unspectacular work as stock husband/love interest. But, it’s nice to see these up and coming actors of color in a high-profile movie.
Hidden Figures is the sum of great lead performances to tell the stories of three women who didn’t get the recognition they deserve until now. Everything else in the film, facts included, is secondary, but it does end up equaling a feel-good watch.
Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, denofgeek.com, and filmandnow.com.
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