‘Hidden Figures’ offers crowd-pleasing story of empowerment

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The first scene of “Hidden Figures” doesn’t look great for Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s. Vaughan is doing some quick repairs on the baby blue Chevy Impala they share, which rests inanimate on a lonely stretch of Virginia highway. The three are late for work, and a cop pulls over and asks for identification. It’s a tense moment that is heightened by the cop’s smugness.

In any other film the tension might be left to simmer, but not here, as it is humorously undercut by Jackson’s quick sarcasm. Upon learning that they work for NASA, the cop agrees to give the women an escort. The car sputters to life and Jackson gleefully floors it.

Director Theodore Melfi knows how to direct crowd-pleasers. He follows up 2014’s adorable “St. Vincent” with “Hidden Figures,” a film that tells the true story of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, who were essential in engineering John Glenn’s historic orbit of the earth.

An ugly blend of racism and sexism stands between the three mathematicians and the roles they deserve at NASA. But with unparalleled smarts, unstoppable ambition and each other’s unrelenting support, these obstacles are of little consequence. “Hidden Figures” doesn’t fixate on the era’s social issues, focusing instead on the mathematicians’ triumphs. In this regard, “Hidden Figures” might be the most positive and optimistic film of 2016. The script, which Melfi co-wrote with Allison Schroeder, crackles with wit and humor, and it is accentuated by Pharrell Williams’ bouncy soundtrack.

Much of “Hidden Figures’ ” charm stems from its stellar cast. The film focuses on Katherine Johnson, played with finesse by Taraji P. Henson. She knows she’s the smartest person in the room, but her white, male co-workers think the same of themselves. “They hired us not because we wear skirts but because we wear glasses,” she says after a peer expresses surprise at her career. Henson counters the casual racism and sexism with a cool, subdued sincerity but always allows her character’s genius to shine at every opportunity.  

As Dorothy Vaughan, Octavia Spencer shines as the one woman that can make NASA’s new IBM computers function. While Henson plays a singular genius, Spencer plays a leader who rallies her staff of female African-American mathematicians to learn a new computer language before anyone else can. As “Moonlight” demonstrated earlier this year, having Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali together in a film is more or less a guarantor of a film’s quality. Monáe is a natural actress and brings Mary Jackson’s wit and sarcasm to life through her uncannily magnetic screen presence. Ali plays Johnson’s love interest and offers some comic relief as he makes Henson’s otherwise collected character swoon.

“Hidden Figures” is thoroughly enjoyable, but it suffers from a meandering plot. For the most part, the film is a series of episodes revolving around the tribulations that Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson face and triumph over. We see Johnson forced to sprint across the NASA campus in heels to the only colored bathroom, and we see Vaughan pilfer a textbook from the whites-only section of the library. These scenes are handled with humor but are thinly strung together. It isn’t quite clear where the film is headed until John Glenn arrives on the scene, and the plot shifts to focus on Johnson’s calculations, which ensure Glenn’s survival in space. With the focus turned to Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson get sidelined. Besides staring with intensity at news coverage of Glenn’s mission, they do very little in the third act. In this sense, only Johnson has stakes in the success of Glenn’s orbit, and the tension of the climax fizzles. Despite this, the film works because there is something to enjoy in every frame, and each scene is an utter crowd-pleaser.

Hollywood has finally acknowledged that representation matters, which is evidenced by recent films such as “Moana” and “Rogue One.” However, “Hidden Figures” transcends mere representation to become a film that is a force of empowerment. It offers us hope that the hidden figures in our society will remain hidden no more.  

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].