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Adds Up Nicely

Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson
20th Century Fox
 127 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson
Hidden Figures

A “cardinal” rule of filmmaking is that, in order to be taken seriously, a movie has to be serious. Light, breezy films have their place, and some are quite well made, but for the various awards committees and boards of critics to bestow an honor on a film, it must have a certain gravitas. That’s even more the case when the film is on a serious, somber subject, like the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), American slavery (12 Years a Slave), or AIDS (Philadelphia). So, it’s going to come as a surprise to many people that the best movie in years about the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s is Hidden Figures, a deceptively breezy dramedy that accomplishes something seemingly impossible in the year 2016, calling attention to some genuinely unknown heroes of that struggle.


Those heroes are black (not surprisingly), employed as technicians and mathematicians in the NASA space program (more surprisingly), and female (most surprisingly). In an era of Jim Crow and almost equally overt sexism, they happened to be in the right place at the right time to give a vital boost to the program, but at the wrong time to receive any acknowledgement for their efforts. Hidden Figures is the story of three such women. It’s told in a style usually dismissed as mere “biodrama,” but it’s a biodrama that is so well written, acted, and directed that it transcends the genre.


In 1962, as the film begins, the United States was engaged in an epic race with the Soviet Union for supremacy in outer space, with the ultimate objective of being the first to reach the moon. Unfortunately, it was a race that the Soviets seemed to lead every step of the way, and NASA’s Space Task Group, operating out of Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, was desperate for as much technical and engineering talent as it could find. Under those circumstances, a number of black women were hired as “computers,” people who, in the days before actual computers, performed in hours the computations we now regard as routine work for modern computers to complete in seconds. While NASA was willing to hire these black women, they still had to work in a segregated unit a considerable distance from the main research center and to endure the sexist, as well as racist, attitudes of the other scientists.


Hidden Figures recounts the story of three groundbreaking women from that era. Katherine Johnson (then known as Goble, and played by Taraji P. Henson) was the best mathematician in the entire facility, black or white, and was assigned to check the calculations of the all-white, all-male engineers planning the initial space flights. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) became the first black supervisor (of the various mathematicians) and one of the first female computer programmers. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) became NASA’s first black female engineer.


The film follows the three of them as they progressed from the segregated computing unit to the positions in which they were later hailed as pioneers. Along the way, they encounter continual racism and sexism. Usually, the racism isn’t of the brutal, life threatening variety often seen in films depicting this era (although an early encounter with a Southern cop has a definite undercurrent of danger even though it proves completely harmless). Instead, it’s a variety of little things, demeaning and obstructive. Vaughan can’t check out a book on computer programming because the librarian tells her that “colored” people don’t need that type of book (she steals the book anyway). Jackson can’t attend classes at the white high school to get the certification she needs to become an engineer (she wins her case in court, representing herself). And, most cinematically compelling of all, Johnson has to run a half mile to the one bathroom on site for “colored” women, causing her to fall behind in her work (and to get herself and her papers soaked on a rainy day).


While the black characters in Hidden Figures are the actual historical personages being portrayed, the white characters, in large part, are composites or complete fictionalizations. For example, there’s the requisite grumpy but evenhanded mentor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who just wants to get things done. On the other hand, most of the film’s portrayal of racism and sexism is channeled through two other fictional characters, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Harrison’s chief engineer, and Vivien Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), the supervisor in charge of the human computers. Stafford does not seem so much a racist as a man peeved that anyone, especially a woman, would check up on his work. Mitchell, on the other hand, embodies the genteel racism held by many at the time. (When she tells Vaughan in one scene that she has nothing against “you all,” Octavia Spencer delivers the film’s best line, sweetly replying “I know you probably believe that.”) Having the burden of being saddled with all of the prevalent bad attitudes at the time, Stafford and Mitchell come off as a bit cartoonish.


The same can’t be said for the leads. Instead of turning them into saints, director Theodore Melfi makes them three dimensional with their own sets of foibles. It’s Johnson’s bladder that produces some of the funniest scenes in the movie, as she fidgets and runs to the bathroom, both making light of a typical instance of segregation and illustrating how separate but equal was inherently unequal and demeaning. Later, when Harrison demands to know where she’s been going on what seems like overly lengthy breaks, she erupts in a tower of righteous indignation that might earn Henson an Oscar nod.


Hidden Figures does many things exceptionally well, and it succeeds at being far more than an after school special on racism and sexism. The film captures the urgency and immediacy of the space race and the hero worship that America lavished on the astronauts, especially John Glenn. It’s ironic that so soon after Glenn’s death, a movie shows once again what a magnificent and completely straightforward person he was. He also figures into the storyline, as he delays his launch until Johnson can verify all the calculations regarding his flight.


The movie also serves as a reminder of the effects of advancing technology. Midway through Hidden Figures, NASA installs an IBM computer that eventually does what the worst segregationist couldn’t. By the end of the movie, the human computers are obsolete and phased out, with the notable exception of Vaughan, who had the foresight to recognize the upcoming information era and learned FORTRAN programming in preparation.


The noted director Howard Hawks, one of the most skilled technicians of all time behind the camera, once said that a good movie had “three great scenes and no bad ones.” Hidden Figures isn’t quite that type of movie. It has only one really great scene, the confrontation over using the colored restroom. However, it does something far less common; it strings together one very good, technically proficient scene after another, like a golfer hitting shot after shot down the middle of the fairway. For a director with only one minor arthouse success (St. Vincent) to his credit, Melfi has crafted an excellent, likable crowd pleaser that makes its points without overblown dramatics and heavy handed posturing. The result is a film that works better than many of the year’s more “profound” releases. Add to that highly topical subject matter and some excellent acting up and down the line, and the result is that wonderful rarity, a highly entertaining film that, at the same time, is about as well made as you’ll see all year. Hidden Figures shouldn’t remain hidden from mainstream audiences. 

In this scene, Taraji P. Henson demonstrates her mathematical expertise.

Read other reviews of Hidden Figures:


Hidden Figures (2016) on IMDb