Hidden Figures (2016) Movie Review
Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst
Not being from America or the era in which Hidden Figures takes place, I was shocked at the depictions of racial segregation.
Of course, going into the film I’m well aware of this part of American history, it’s just not at the forefront of my everyday life. Through the power of cinematic storytelling, seeing how African Americans had to use separate sections of the library or different coffee pots at the workplace is striking.
Hidden Figures is about making visible the stories and lives of people who don’t get mentioned in the history books. History is the account of remarkable events and people like astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Hidden Figures pulls back the curtain to reveal in their own right three remarkable real-life African American women behind that NASA mission.
An early pivotal scene which stands out is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) confiding her doubts about pursuing an engineering degree, not because she isn’t capable but that it is difficult to envision herself as the first NASA female engineer. Often the first person to hold us back or tell us we can’t do something is the voice inside our own head.
Winston Churchill has a good quote that relates to this: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” As brilliant as Mary is, it’s her courageousness that blazes the path forward for all of us.
Another aspect that is handled well is when mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) must spend a great amount of time to go across the NASA compound to use the colored restroom which is played lightheartedly at first; however, it sets up a strong emotional character moment which hits home because it encapsulates how her suffering is invisible to those working around her.
A form of discrimination that is really cruel is the “I’m just doing what I’m told, but believe me I’m on your side” routine played by Kirsten Dunst’s fictional character towards unofficial supervisor Dorthy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). It’s pernicious because it absolves people of their responsibility and actions, thus making their bigotry acceptable in their own minds.
All of the lead performances by Henson, Spencer and Monáe are terrific and their natural on-screen chemistry is effortless. Kevin Costner as fictional NASA director Al Harrison also delivers a fine performance in a supporting role.
As with any based on a real story film, it is a combination of facts and composite experiences. Hidden Figures’ story has a good flow and ties together the central characters, making it a stronger movie than if things played out as it happened in history. If you’re interested in what are the facts and which elements are written for the film check out History vs Hollywood.
An interesting quote from the real Katherine Johnson, “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Is this attributed to Johnson being gracious or maybe due to living in that era which makes everyday experiences normalized? You can watch her speak for herself in an interview here.
A couple of other brief observations is the irrational fear and hostility towards civil rights. History is cyclical in part because it is driven by patterned human behavior. It goes deeper than how some people are afraid of change. If the resentment which lurks inside many of us festers it’ll lead down a dark road. This is evident in the current political climate. Just to be clear, with any social-political movement it is crucial to weigh the evidence, truth and use rational thinking, not just rely on emotions or catch phrases.
Hidden Figures is a good conversation starter about many issues on prejudice and discrimination which this review only skims the surface of. It is also important to focus on the positives and celebrate the accomplishments of these three historical African American women at NASA. Despite many things which could have held them back in that era, it didn’t prevent these women from striving. We could all learn from sharing in their virtues and the will to achieve.