Hidden Figures (2016): Touching Unsung Heroes (Review)

The three hidden figures relaxing

Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, (Allison Schroeder was the joint author of the screenplay), Hidden Figures The Help can be seen as goes to NASA.  It peripherally tackles the same issues of inequality of race and looks at the double struggle that these real-life protagonists faced as women.

The film, and presumably the book, really has one message underneath the touching and inspiring stories of these three remarkable ladies: Education is the real key to equality. At least it was back before IBM and it’s temperamental keypunch cards and the advent of home computing. Back in the day, that university degree made the difference for intelligent women who would have been trapped in the world of “The Help” without it.

(The talented Octavia Spencer also appeared in”The Help.” The 2011 film, which also starred Viola Davis and Emma Stone, as well as Bryce Dallas Howard, also attempted to show what being black, and a woman meant in the shameful days of a segregated South.)

NASA did not see colour, however, and hired a great many black Americans to work as “computers.”  History backs this up but it also glosses over the contribution that these particular women made towards winning the space race. This was initially a one-sided contest that began in 1958 when the Russians took to the skies in an attempt to control space be getting there first.

Hidden Figures stars Spencer, as the self-taught computer “expert,” Taraji P. Henson, plays the mathematical wunderkind who grows up to become a crucial part of the early days of NASA; Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the first black female allowed to study at a white school (she then went on to be the first female engineer at NASA).

Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, the man tasked with getting those “All the Right Stuff” astronauts off the ground and getting ahead of the Russians. Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory) plays a snotty character who very reluctantly accepts the new computer, Ms. Johnson to his team and Kirsten Dunst is the disagreeable Vivian Mitchell, a woman who tries very hard to hold Spencer’s character back. 

Melfi gives us an accounting that is clearly embellished in places, like the very funny and pertinent scene with the policeman at the start of the film, but it may not be too far off the mark after all. For example, Harrison’s frustration at the treatment of his math genius is played out with a simple scene.  Al smashes the “coloured” restroom sign off the wall and with a look of distaste removes another sign from Mary’s segregated coffee pot.

Hidden Figures is about much more than the racial issues of the day. It is also about the looming change in society with the new IBM computers, the move of other technology to a new high and life in a segregated world. (This too would change, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.)

What the film does best is give us a front-row seat at the business end of NASA. (On a sidenote here, the film allows for two splendid cameo performances from Glen Powell, better known as Chad Radwell in Fox’s “Scream Queens” and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who worked with Monáe in the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight.)

Hidden Figures may be the shorthand version of Shetterly’s book, as many have claimed, but it tells its story well. The time period looks authentic, the performers do not put one foot wrong and the film manages to be touching and, in spite of knowing how the first mission of John Glenn ended in real life, throws in a touch of suspense.

The film is a full 5 star effort. Any movie that can induce a lump in the throat while also evoking anger and sheer joy at the advancements made by the heroine’s in this recounting of a hidden history, earns every accolade it gets.

This was, apparently, a labour of love for all concerned and rightly so. It was a story that needed telling and Melfi, along with everyone else involved with this project, did a brilliant job presenting it.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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