Hidden Figures (2016)

History is written by the victors.  That was the saying.  In recent years, it seems like that saying is slowly being rewritten or made less accurate.  Given the increasing ease of access to information and different perspectives, events and history are constantly being re-evaluated and re-contextualized by more variety of perspectives seeing the light of day.  History is about telling the story of our shared past and the more input we have for telling that story, the richer and fuller the story can become.  It is in this vein that Hidden Figures finds itself, telling the story of three black women who worked for NASA in the 1960s at the height of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are the aforementioned women who work at NASA.  Katherine is a mathematical genius, Dorothy is a has a knack for machines, and Mary has a “engineer’s brain.”  However, all three of them work as “computers” for NASA, literally doing the computations for the complex equations necessary for space flight.  Being Virginia in the 1960s, they’re in the West Area Computers of the Langley, VA facility,  their own segregated division.  With the Soviets putting Sputnick up into space, the US has fallen behind in the “space race” and Katherine soon finds herself assigned to the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), a group of mathematical thinkers and problem solvers figuring out the math of getting a man into space and back again, discovering “new” math in the process.  As the only black person and only woman who is a non-secretary in the group, she faces an uphill climb to be accepted by most of the white men she is working beside.  Dorothy also faces difficulty, wanting to be the first black supervisor and facing the pending elimination of the human computers for what we know to be computers today, machines that can do the math exponentially faster than a person.  Likewise, Mary’s desire to become an engineer is also met with resistance as it requires advanced schooling that is not available to women of color.

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The film is a fairly straightforward, traditional, textbook kind of storytelling of a film based on a true historical story of this nature.  A lot of the racial component of it all is fairly obvious, but most of it is also quite effective.  While there seemed to be an overabundance of record scratch moments, where a black person walks into the room and every white person stops what they’re doing to stare at them, nearly everything else is effective.  Katherine is put behind the 8-ball almost immediately, the information she is given to do her work and make sure the numbers are correct is heavily redacted and therefore incomplete, making it practically impossible for her to do her job.  Jim Parsons portrays the head engineer who is constantly impeding her work, serving the over-the-top-but-necessary role of the physical embodiment of the segregation and bigotry that she has to deal with.  The film also points out the institutional racism of segregation by having the only segregated bathrooms halfway across campus from where Katherine works, meaning she has to run across the parking lot several times a day just to use the bathroom.

Henson, Spencer, and Monae are spectacular as the three main characters and director Theodore Melfi does a fantastic job of blending their three stories together so seamlessly.  Henson is currently most well-known for being Cookie on the TV series Empire, but she has been previously nominated for an Academy Award for her work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Katherine is a vastly different role than the outsized character that Cookie is.  Diversity of roles for women seemed to be generally lacking, and diversity of roles for women of color seem especially lacking in prominent films, so it’s refreshing to see that a talented actress like Henson is not being typecast after finding a breakthrough pop culture character.  Spencer and Monae are also great in their supporting roles, with Monae in particular being a bit of a revelation considering her limited acting background.

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The rest of the supporting cast is headlined by Costner, who also does a great job as the head of the Space Task Group who could care less about color of skin and just wants the best minds to be able to do the best work.  It’s a character most similar to a coach in a sports movie dealing with racial tensions on his team.  Kirsten Dunst is also quite good as the supervisor above Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy who is simply unaware of reality of the situation for Dorothy and the women that work under Dorothy.  Mahershala Ali pops as a love interest for Katherine, and Glen Powell, who was a standout earlier in 2016 in Everybody Wants Some!! portrays John Glenn.

As much as the issues of racism and segregation are at the forefront of the film, what stands out about these three women is their determination and their ability to adapt and thrive under their circumstances.  With the pending arrival of machines to make their jobs obsolete, all three of them seek a way to apply themselves in such a way as to become invaluable if/when their jobs are eventually phased out.

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If there is one aspect of the film that did not work for me, it was the soundtrack that was done by Pharrell.  It’s a difficult situation as he is actually one of the producers of the film and he is a talented musician.  The problem is that he has such a distinctively modern sound that it does not mesh with either with the setting of this film or the throwback, traditional nature of the film.  And “Runnin'”, the featured song on the soundtrack, is poorly implemented too.  It plays every time Katherine is running from the office she works in across the parking lots to the colored bathroom in another building.  When she finally has had enough of it on a particularly rough day, the words “no more runnin'” come across.  It’s incredibly on the nose.

On the whole, though, Hidden Figures is a pretty good film based on a true story.  It’s a traditional, textbook kind of film that is highly effective but also gets made less than it used to be.  Also, because of its format (and a PG rating), it has mass appeal, as evidenced by the audience it has found in this Oscar season.  It’s definitely a film worth seeing, too, as it gives us a new perspective on an important moment in American history, and does so in a way that gets that story out to a wider audience.

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Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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