Hidden Figures brings us the powerful story of three strong African-American women who struggled for recognition and advancement in a time when neither option was readily available to women, much less black women. The year is 1961, and the setting is NASA Headquarters in heavily segregated Hampton, VA.
Those three women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Johnson (Janelle Monáe), will eventually become integral parts of the space race, but not before dealing head-on with the ever-looming specter of white supremacy and segregation. Hidden Figures tells that story in a populist, by-the-numbers sort of way, but it's nevertheless a triumph that this story is being told at all.
Simple Is Best
Hidden Figures is directed by Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Allison Schroeder, based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one will ever accuse Mr. Melfi of being a boundary-pushing auteur; his direction is workmanlike, free of fuss. His screenplay knows how and when to make the audience laugh, to make them cheer, to make them tear up.
Mr. Melfi clearly knows the sheer talent of the cast that he has established, and lets them do much of the heavy lifting, which is much to the advantage of the film. Even though a savvy viewer will be able to predict what a character is going to say before they open their mouth at any given moment, it's still a pleasure to watch these highly capable thespians deliver that dialogue. In brief, Mr. Melfi's everyman approach serves the import of the story.
Reaching For The Stars
And what a story this is. Katherine finds herself assigned as a computer to the department working on the Mercury program, in charge of setting coordinates for manned space flight. She is underestimated and taken advantage of at every turn, treated coldly by her all-white, all-male colleagues (especially an arrogant engineer played by Jim Parsons), forced to walk a mile and a half to the nearest colored women's room, and given horrified looks when she attempts to drink from the same coffee pot as her new coworkers.
Dorothy is constantly denied a managerial position by her condescending supervisor (Kirsten Dunst), despite doing all the work of a manager, and so decides to stealthily learn the language of those newfangled IBM computers in order to gain a leg up. And Mary, the sassiest and most outspoken of the group, seeks to officially earn a degree in engineering, but can only work at NASA if said degree comes from a segregated school.
The most compelling part of Hidden Figures is how acutely it makes you feel the pressure of being black in the Jim Crow south of the 1960s. There are countless shots of these women entering spaces reserved for whites, and all the Caucasian eyes in the room following them with quiet suspicion and alarm. Whenever they are set back a step from achieving their goal, a white character invariably shrugs and says "That's just the way it is." (which, of course, is all too easy for a person in their position to say). As an audience member, you really start to feel the toll this constant, low-key oppression must've taken on these women.
Mr. Melfi deserves special commendation for not treating his white characters as heroes for eventually realizing that their black co-workers deserve to be treated like human beings. And those who treat Katherine and co. with respect and dignity from the start, especially astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) and Katherine's boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) do so because, hey, why wouldn't you?
For A Better Tomorrow
Unless you are completely oblivious or an unapologetic racist, Hidden Figures remains a timely tale. Black people in this country are still fighting for the same respect that Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary did in their time. It may seem unbelievable to younger audiences that these women were punished and denigrated for something as simple as wanting to have their name included on an official report, or check out a book from the "Whites Only" section of the library, or earn a college degree. Audiences should flock to this entertaining but important film, because it gives us plenty to think about. Namely, the fact that we were able so send a human into space, but are still working to ensure that those of us humans down here on Earth are treated equally.