This would still be a good, “important” story if the film were only mediocre, but great casting and writing make it essential.
Based on a true story, Hidden Figures follows three African-American women at NASA, their contributions to the space program, and the battle for civil rights fought within their workspaces. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the mathematics savant working on calculations to return astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) from orbit, with the project leader Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and the somewhat distant department head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are Katherine’s closest friends; the former is a Jane-of-all-trades, as the supervisor (in all but name) of the “computer” team of African American women; the latter is an engineering genius who is prevented from advancing in her field at NASA due to segregation laws. The work of these three women would prove integral to the space program, while the very same hard work and intellect helps them tackle the race-based challenges.
In lists of so-called boring subjects for films, assembled by writers without the imagination to try, mathematics and paperwork will always appear. It is understandable however, given that many of us go to the movies for escapism, not to be reminded of the most workaday aspects of our existences. Striking the right balance between compelling, accurate, and insufferable displays of intellect is a real challenge – just look at how Sherlock, once lauded for the same, became a frequent punching bag because of its more overt editing choices.
But as we’ve seen in all too many sub-par blockbusters, sometimes enormous explosions have all the cinematic impact of a stroke on a chalkboard in real life. In the case of Hidden Figures, the opposite is true: with Katherine Johnson’s story in particular, writer-director Theodore Melfi’s effective staging and framing gives the calculation sequences a purposeful rhythm and the right balance of tone. It’s practically imperceptible, feeling instinctive as it does, which is probably the secret strength of Hidden Figures – using what appears simplistic and formulaic to great effect, in service of the acting and writing. There’s a recurring sequence where Katherine must run to the only coloured women’s bathroom, that’s beautifully paid-off at the film’s climax, through only the repeated camera movements. It’s a small, unnecessary flourish that bolsters the story and performances.
There isn’t an actor out of place here: Costner gives great stoicism as the fictitious Al Harrison, with his working attitude and evolving responses to Katherine borne by a core morality in tune with the actor’s old school American style. Mahershala Ali (Oscar nominated for the upcoming Moonlight) turns up for a love story subplot that isn’t thematically relevant (true to life or not), but through solid writing and his sheer charisma it blossoms into a relationship that never feels distracting. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst (as a manager above Spencer’s Vaughan) ooze an arrogant superiority, Melfi’s script with co-writer Allison Schroeder tying its very modern, subtle observations about racism to their characters most of all.
The real stars are the three women at the centre of every poster – Henson, Spencer, and Monáe. Three very distinct black women, at once familiar, yet never too broad as to tumble into bad parody of the one-dimensional sassy or angry black woman. Henson gets the most to do (her role the most linked to John Glenn’s launch), and she owns every minute of it. She makes her vulnerability, her intellect, her dedication, and her (mostly) bottled anger all in tune; the craziness that made Empire’s Cookie so iconic is far removed, but Henson’s perfectly at ease in the lead role. Spencer again proves that she’s probably the best in the business at delivering a specific type of commanding, take-no-shits attitude that’s also positively ordinary, with her principled take on Dorothy Vaughan – it’s thanks to Spencer that the resolution to her story lands the strongest. Janelle Monáe (also in Moonlight don’t you know?) would steal the entire show if she was in it more. Mary Jackson is an outright badass, the most fun character in the entire film, with enough dimensions and unique personal doubts to remain safely distanced from the feisty black stereotype. It’s a star-making role that’s undercut by her reduced presence as the focus shifts from the trio to Katherine, and a resolution that feels distanced from the NASA specific achievements.
It’s true, Maths isn’t easy to make cinematic. What we’ll always come back to are strong characters, and interesting stories. If, in the case of Hidden Figures, you already have an important one, you could likely get away with an average film. But that’s not enough for Melfi, or the stellar cast. The triumphant result of their work shows that sometimes the simple and formulaic approaches work the best.
Hidden Figures (2017), directed by Theodore Melfi, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox. Certificate PG.