Whilst Hollywood might be running out of fictional ideas for new movies, Hidden Figures serves as a reminder that there are still an untold number of real life stories that can serve as inspiration for filmmakers. It can certainly be a challenge to make movies about the significant people and events from history that are both entertaining and informative, but director Theodore Melfi has achieved that here. Melfi never understates the importance of what takes place and the role of the three women at the centre of the story, but he also makes the film appealing to a mainstream audience by injecting a large serving of humour that never undermines the significance of their achievement. Adapted by Melfi and Allison Schroeder from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who played a critical role in NASA’s successful launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
Set in 1961 when African-Americans were still subjected to policies and practices that kept them segregated from the white population in work, education, business and access to public services and facilities, Hidden Figures is an upbeat, but perhaps not entirely accurate, look at the efforts of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) in overcoming prejudice and discrimination to secure the same opportunities afforded to other employees in the space agency. Johnson is a gifted mathematician who ultimately assumes responsibility for calculating Glenn’s launch trajectory while Vaughan serves as the supervisor (without the benefit of any official designation as such or the salary to go with it) of a group of female mathematicians referred to as ‘coloured computers’. Jackson is one of these ‘computers’ with aspirations of becoming an engineer, a feat that will require her being accepted into classes at the local all-white school.
Whilst this feels like a watered-down history lesson at times, there is an undeniable resonance in this story, which serves as a reminder of the absurdity of racial segregation, even if there isn’t a lot time spent exploring the broader difficulties these women and their families faced within the community, other than Vaughan being admonished at the public library for daring to seek a book from within the ‘white’ section. Many of the characters are clichéd – Jim Parsons as the one-dimensional racist white engineer, Kirsten Dunst as the one-dimensional racist white personnel supervisor – and it is Kevin Costner who emerges as the most likeable of the supporting players. As leader of the Space Task Group, the team responsible for the calculations required to ensure the safe lift-off, orbit and return to earth of the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule with Glenn (Glen Powell) on board, Costner’s Al Harrison is a somewhat hapless middle-man under immense pressure to get America into space as quickly as possible. Harrison seems out of his depth but, to his credit, demonstrates great faith in Johnson’s calculations, inviting her to attend meetings and elaborate to the higher-ups, much to the chagrin of Parsons’ snippety Paul Stafford.
Throw in a romance between Katherine and National Guardsman Jim Johnson (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali) and you have all the ingredients for the family-friendly fare that Melphi so obviously intended this to be. What lifts the film above the cheap sentimentality are the spirited performances of the three leads, all of whom weave a perfect blend of humour and tenacity in their portrayals. Of course, Henson and Spencer come to this with an extensive body of quality work behind them in both film and television, while Monae follows up her screen debut in Moonlight, in which she starred alongside Ali, with another impressive performance. Yes, Hidden Figures is somewhat light-hearted (it was very hard to take Chad Radwell from Scream Queens seriously as John Glenn) and does only scratch the surface of the social and political touchpoints that it attempts to cover, but if people leave the cinema with a little more awareness of the barriers that America’s black population faced as recently as 50 years ago, and the significant contribution they have made to the advancement of America’s national interests, that can only be a good thing.