Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures

Rating

Director

Theodore Melfi

Screenplay

Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi (Book: Margot Lee Shetterly)

Length

127 min.

Starring

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

MPAA Rating

PG for thematic elements and some language

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Review

What can a historical drama tell us about the lives of people of color during segregation? The viewpoint determines its effectiveness and while Hidden Figures might have a tendency to sugarcoat the events, it’s still a compelling look at a dark part of American history.

Almost everything you need to know about the film can be seen in its opening scene. Broken down on the side of the road in rural Virginia, three black women lament the struggles of trying to get to work on time in a car that has mechanical problems rather than walking or riding in the back of the bus. The arrival of a white police officer causes visible concern for the women. However, once he discovers where they work, he’s more than willing to provide them police escort. Why? Because these three confident black women work at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

NASA is working on putting a man in orbit and, eventually, onto the moon itself. To get there, they need a “computer,” then a term for someone who does manual computations, to help them verify and invent the math that doesn’t already exist. Taraji P. Henson plays that computer, Katherine G. Johnson, a widowed mother of three who was gifted with mathematical genius from a young age.

With the emotional and physical help of her “supervisor” Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and fellow computer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who is assigned to the engineering team, Katherine navigates not only a male-dominated world, but a whites-only environment to help guide astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space and hopefully back to earth.

Henson, an Oscar nominee for The Curious Case of Benjmain Button, is as dependable an actress as you can get. Her work is always exemplary. Her frustrated, sporadically confident, careworn persona is a perfect fit for Katherine as written in the film. She’s ably supported by a cast of actors who know how to deliver their performances without stepping on one another.

Spencer, stuck in a typecast role like her Oscar-winning turn in The Help, as the spunky supervisor who must work outside the system to accomplish success for herself and for those under her, gives a solid performance. As do Kevin Costner as the head of the team responsible for getting manned capsules into space; Kirsten Dunst as the casually racist supervisor assigning tasks to Dorothy’s team; Jim Parsons as the sexist mathematician who doesn’t feel he must put up with Katherine’s superior intellect; Powell in his brief appearance as the open-minded, free-wheeling John Glenn; Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s would-be suitor; and Aldis Hodge as Mary’s husband.

The revelation in this cast, though, is singer Janelle Monáe. With this and Moonlight being her acting debuts this year, it’s clear she’s going to have a fruitful career in the near future. Without the benefit of typecasting, she yields two different performances in these films. Here, she is the spiritual center of the film, a woman of remarkable conviction who sees the world as it is, but refuses to accept it. While Dorothy and Katherine feel confined by it, she breaks free and takes the audience with her. Hers is a performance that will brand itself on the audience’s memory of this film.

In only his second feature-length directorial effort, Theodore Melfi has confirmed his status as a solid journeyman helmer. The film doesn’t have any defining visual elements that could easily identify him, but the sum total of his efforts is a satisfying, engaging picture. It may have a superficial gleam of broad appeal, but its core principles and underlying framework reveal a challenging and troubling time for race relations in the United States.

As the nation grapples with the re-emergence of the quietly simmering white supremacist movement, a film like this provides a gentle, accessible option for those who can’t handle the more aggressive and pointed films like 12 Years a Slave or Selma. It has some strong things to say about how blacks were treated in general in the 1960s without focusing on the violent offenses committed against them. While that type of film has its place, so too does this one.

Well acted, passionate, rousing, and engaging, Hidden Figures might not be the most contentious of Civil Rights Era treatises, but it’s certainly a high quality, important, and commendable one.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song
Potentials: Picture, Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Supporting Actor (Kevin Costner), Supporting Actress (Janelle Monáe), Original Score, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design

Review Written


January 1, 2017

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