There are some classic Hollywood storytelling molds out there — frameworks that with the right story and the right talents applied, result in a feel-good, crowd-pleasing movie — the popcorn and Coca-Cola of cinema. “Hidden Figures” perfectly encapsulates that type of film. It balances upon a combination of a witty script both humorous and dramatic, veteran actors giving likable performances and a true story that really hits on the realities of a certain place in time in history.
That time and place is not only NASA headquarters in 1961 in the height of the space race, but more generally, a racially segregated Virginia. “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three women caught in the intersection of both. Some of the nation’s most bright and well-educated black women worked as “computers” for NASA, helping to verify and compute the complex math equations required to launch rockets into space. When Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) gets an opportunity to compute for the head of the Space Task Group (Kevin Costner), a position in which no one lasts long, she’s the first black woman to have the opportunity, and it comes at a crucial time — right after the Russians have successfully launched the Sputnik satellite, upping the stakes of the space race.
The other women are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the unofficial acting supervisor of the black women in the computing division who isn’t being given the title or the pay despite doing the work, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) an aspiring engineer who decides to fight for her opportunity to actually become one. The film follows each of these women as they fight against oppression both sanctioned and unsanctioned, all while supporting one another and contributing to one of the biggest scientific advances of the 20th century.
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s sharp screenplay (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) really sets the tone for “Hidden Figures,” starting with a terrific introductory scene in which Katherine, Dorothy and Mary’s car has broken down on the way to NASA headquarters and a police officer stops to examine the situation. Schroeder and Melfi (who also directs) address racial tension head on, but they’re able to approach it from the black perspective, in the sense that these women know this is how things are and have a sense of humor about it. Throughout the whole film, we’re reminded how unfortunate and wrong segregation was, but the discomfort of these issues comes at the expense of the white characters who are made (and rightfully so) to seem ridiculous for their thoughts and behavior.
This set up gives these lead female actors a major advantage and they all deliver. Spencer and Monae have it easy as they both have a lot of natural presence and their characters get all kinds of permission to stand up and use it. Henson’s role is trickier. Katherine is as bright as her friends and a strong independent woman in her own right, but she pushes back on the oppression she faces in her own quiet way. That makes her one dramatic outburst in the film a rather big moment, even if it’s maybe a tad out of character.
Much of “Hidden Figures” plays out in traditional, exposition-heavy based-on-a-true- story fashion of fighting resistance and overcoming the odds, but it works because the story is good and the writing provides ample moments to “fall for” the characters. Melfi’s “St. Vincent” was also a film that played out in somewhat cliché fashion, but he has a way of really endearing the audience to the characters in his movies. There are so many moments when the lead characters get to game and shame the system and there’s nothing more satisfying than when characters we like put the characters we don’t like in their place.
That’s what a feel-good movie does, and that’s what “Hidden Figures” is, and it does it better than most. Part of that is writing, but part of that is also the unique components of this particular true story. On a few occasions, white characters tell these women that they can’t do something because no one ever has or there’s no precedent, but the backdrop of the space race gives them a powerful example of how hard we as a country were working to do something that had never been done before. These characters were uniquely situated in the divide between America’s obsession with scientific progress and its failures in social progress. They helped to catalyze both. And that’s not even bringing up the issue of women in fields of science and mathematics.
To say the story makes the film in this case would be unfair to the talents behind and in front of the camera, but it’s the combination of the right story and the right storytellers that make “Hidden Figures” one of those important feel-good movies that school teachers will play in classrooms for a long time to come.
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Margot Lee Shetterly (book)
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner