Hidden Figures (2016)

Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do.

If you’re ready for an inspirational, feel-good experience, then the biographical drama Hidden Figures is the movie for you. Although some may be sick of the current influx of true stories making their way to the silver screen, this little-known tale is definitely worth sitting through, not just because the story itself is profound, or the acting is second to none, but because this is the kind of tale that’ll linger long after the final crawl.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures tells the story of a trio of African-American ladies who worked at NASA during the 1960s (and well beyond), having assisted in winning the USA-Soviet Union Space Race, their unique spark, flare and can-do spirit brought to the fore.

Mothers. Wives. Heroes.
Mothers. Wives. Heroes.

Taraji P. Henson, from television’s Empire (2015), stars as Katherine G. Johnson, an incredibly talented ‘Human Computer’ who helped calculate the key trajectories needed for astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) to orbit around the Earth in the Friendship 7. Also joining her is Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011), who plays the matriarch of the team Dorothy Vaughan, a computer supervisor who takes it upon herself to specialize, and train, her staff in using (and operating) new electronic computer technology known as the IBM, in turn, making her an indispensable asset to NASA in the rapidly changing era. Finally, we have the ever delightful Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe, Moonlight (2016), a mathematician who dreams of one day becoming an engineer, in particular, the first-ever black female engineer. Working extremely well together, these wonderful leads offer viewers a glimpse into their characters’ respective worlds — their private lives and the friendship, love and laughter that fueled their determination.

As superb as our three protagonists are, one can’t ignore the likes of Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves (1990), who embodies NASA bigwig Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group (STG) and the key link in breaking the divide between black and white, his goal, to beat the Soviet Union at the Space Race at any cost, the character largely based on real-life figure Robert C. Gilruth. Additionally, Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016), adds lightness to proceedings as Colonel Jim Johnson, a charming military officer who winds up tying the knot with Katherine.

'Ladies, it's time to make history.'
‘Ladies, it’s time to make history.’

On the contrary, we’re also introduced to Harrison’s leading engineer Paul Stafford played by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, a man struggling to come to terms with a black female joining his team, one who may very well be smarter and more gifted than he is. Parson’s is very convincing here as the straight-laced employee who’ll do everything (without much luck) to stop Katherine from succeeding at her job. Similarly, we also meet the somewhat ‘stuck-up’ Vivian Mitchell, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man (2002), the Human Computer’s supervisor who takes charge with an unconscious bias towards people of color. With both (fictional) antagonists eventually realizing that they’re part of an ever-changing world (whether they agree with it or not), they each choose the right path, and that is to embrace change.

For all of its plucky fun, there is a more serious side to Hidden Figures. As well as the Soviet Union and USA Space Race rocketing at full speed, the film shines a light on the underlying issues of segregation and oppression, still rampant throughout the United States in the 1960s, which director Theodore Melfi, St. Vincent (2014), subtlety portrays — even if these prejudices are forever present throughout the narrative. For instance, we see Katherine constantly having to dart to the black women’s bathroom in the West Computing area (located half a mile from the STG) — this accompanied by the adeptly titled Runnin’, performed by singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams — we see the women having lunch in the all-black cafeteria and Vaughan having to sit in the colored section of the bus, while only being ‘allowed’ to borrow books from a specific section of the library — one primed for people of color. It’s this attention to detail that makes the viewer feel as though they’ve been transported back to a time when, for so many, this discrimination and narrow-mindedness was a part of everyday life, the story honing in on three amazing ladies who saw an opportunity to make a change, a change worth fighting for.

Groove Is in the Heart
Groove Is in the Heart

The brilliant set design by Wynn Thomas, A Beautiful Mind (2001), and old-fashioned costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, Chocolat (2000), also pay homage to the 1950s and ’60s when long skirts, patterned dresses and stark button-down shirts were all the rage. Elsewhere, Hidden Figures’ soulful music and stirring score — composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), along with Benjamin Wallfisch, A Cure for Wellness (2016) — enrich the atmosphere whilst adding to the authenticity of life in an era-specific USA. The boppy soundtrack is also excellent with the likes of Pharrell Williams having written upbeat, uplifting tracks for the film, groovy beats that are intertwined with the personalities of our dynamic leads.

While certainly thought-provoking and engaging, this crowd-pleaser is, at times, a little too effervescent given its rather weighty subject matter and constant number crunching. Either way, filmmaker Theodore Melfi drives home his point, whilst putting a spring in viewer’s step, Hidden Figures a fluffier alternative to those emotionally heavy Oscar flicks such as Manchester by the Sea (2016) or Fences (2016).

Whether you’re male, female, young or old, and no matter the color of your skin, Hidden Figures is sure to leave an impression, the story highlighting the strength within us and the greatness that one can achieve with willpower, self-confidence and drive, the flick illustrating that, despite our innate differences, when many come together we can accomplish remarkable things. To think, the world was changed by a simple bathroom break!

'Calculator? I can just calcunow.'
‘Calculator? I can just calcunow.’

Do yourself a favor and don’t let these figures stay hidden, particularly in today’s somewhat rocky climate. Whether you’re in the mood for a dazzling slice of entertainment or just a simple pick-me-up, I urge you to check this one out as you never know when these brave, strong-willed women might inspire or empower you.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by L. Jackson

Hidden Figures is released through 20th Century Fox Australia