Film Review: ‘Hidden Figures’

'Hidden Figures' Review: How Race Factored
Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Feel-good drama reveals the largely untold way in which race factored into the U.S.-Soviet space race.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race. As brash, bright, and broad as Hollywood studio movies come, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three of these unsung heroes, all of them African-American, who fought a doubly steep uphill battle — as crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia — to help put an American into orbit.

Today, there is nothing surprising about the fact that black women could handle such a task, and clearly NASA was realistic enough to recognize this at the time. What wasn’t necessarily evident in 1962 was that these “colored computers,” as they were called by NASA, deserved to be afforded the same rights and treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues — and what director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) illustrates via his simplistic, yet thoroughly satisfying retelling is just how thoroughly the deck was stacked against these women. “Hidden Figures” is empowerment cinema at its most populist, and one only wishes that the film had existed at the time it depicts — though ongoing racial tensions and gender double-standards suggest that perhaps we haven’t come such a long way, baby. Now 98, Taraji P. Henson’s character, Katherine Johnson (after whom NASA later named a computational research facility), lived long enough to see a black president, but not a female commander-in-chief.

Like “American Graffiti” or “The Help,” “Hidden Figures” takes place in a colorful, borderline-kitsch version of the American past. (Practically brandishing its vintage details and stunning costumes, the film takes place at roughly the same time and place as Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” which offers a less splashy notion of the era in question.) An early scene shows Katherine and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) repairing the Chevy Impala in which they carpool, when a white police officer pulls over in a scene whose tension hasn’t dissipated one iota in half a century. Once the cop realizes who they are, he volunteers to give the women a police escort. “Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961,” quips Mary. “Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

If only everyone’s mind could so easily be changed. At work, Katherine is promoted to a job with the Space Task Group, where manager Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, whose gum-chewing, crew-cut look nails the era) is too distracted to notice tension between his employees, especially boss’s pet Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, playing the sort of reductive stereotype that talented minorities have been forced to settle for over the past century — not ideal, as characterizations go, though such payback seems only fair).

Meanwhile, Dorothy takes orders from a curt, condescending white lady (Kirsten Dunst), who addresses Dorothy by her first name, and offers little help with her request for a promotion to supervisor, despite the fact Dorothy is already doing the job. As a woman, Vivian can empathize with the challenges of a discriminatory workplace; and yet, as a white woman, she doesn’t get it at all, oblivious to her subconscious role in keeping her black colleagues down (“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all,” she says), for which Dorothy quite rightly puts her in her place.

As in “Mad Men,” so much of the gender and race dynamics are conveyed via body language, subtext, and the telling way characters look at one another. But unlike the wonderfully subtle writing for that relatively sophisticated series, the “Hidden Figures” screenplay — which Melfi and Allison Schroeder adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s newly published nonfiction book — has a tendency to deliver its message via direct, on-the-nose dialogue (e.g. after defusing the segregated-bathroom problem, Kevin Costner decrees, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!”).

The bathroom scene is by far the movie’s most satisfying, in that it follows a series of cartoonish vignettes in which Katherine must dash half a mile in high heels, clear to the West Computing Building, in order to relieve herself — a daily humiliation amplified by the sound of a new Pharrell track called “Runnin’.” (Also a producer on the film, Pharrell puts a playful, upbeat spin on the patent unfairness these women faced, culminating in his terrifically empowering, gospel-infused “Victory.”) As vital as these scenes are, it’s practically groan-inducing to watch Henson — a talented actress whose exaggerated portrayal of a math whiz suggests Michelle Pfeiffer’s smart, yet haggard pre-Catwoman secretary in “Batman Returns” — awkwardly pantomiming someone with a bladder about to burst, but that’s the broad acting style Melfi encourages, and it’s the kind that inspires spontaneous ovations at the end of implausible monologues. (As crowd-pleasing ingredients go, “Hidden Figures” has nearly everything except a scene of a cat being rescued from a tree.)

Henson’s co-stars manage to play their own recurring challenges in more convincing ways — best exemplified as the beautiful, self-confident Mary (Monáe, launching a formidable acting career, between this and “Moonlight”) petitions the judge to let her take the necessary night courses that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA. Spencer’s Dorothy also faces obstacles at every turn, but cleverly anticipates how the IBM (which amusingly can’t even fit through the door of the empty room that awaits its arrival) will render her division obsolete, and plans accordingly, making herself indispensable.

Among the male roles, Mahershala Ali is every bit as strong as Costner at playing a skeptical man quick to recognize Katherine’s talents — supplying the film’s only romantic subplot in the process — while all-American astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) doesn’t so much as hesitate to accept the computers’ contributions. Before the launch of his Friendship 7 vessel, Glenn says, “Let’s get the girl to check the numbers.” When Harrison asks, “Which one?” Glenn doesn’t miss a beat: “The smart one.”

Film Review: 'Hidden Figures'

Reviewed at Fox studios, Dec. 2, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films production. Produced by Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi. Executive producers: Jamal Daniel, Renee Witt, Ivana Lombardi, Mimi Valdés, Kevin Halloran, Margot Lee Shetterly.

Crew

Director: Theodore Melfi. Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Camera (color, widescreen): Mandy Walker). Editor: Peter Teschner.

With

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Kimberly Quinn.

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  1. Bronwen says:

    Fabulous movie, well acted, well directed and so enjoyable. Kevin Costner did a great job too.

  2. Sigh says:

    “though ongoing racial tensions and gender double-standards suggest that perhaps we haven’t come such a long way”

    We have come a long way, up until a few years ago, when the media realized they could make a lot more money by dividing us.

  3. vehuw says:

    My Uncle Joseph just got a new yellow Infinite QM Hybrid just by some part-time working online with a mac book.
    http://www.4dayjobs.com

  4. Some day you might ask educated Americans what they thought of HIDDEN FIGURES. More likely than not they may say that the movie made some very good points about “hidden history” of black women in the NASA space program; it got some important ideas across. The assumption is that the film carried these “ideas” which, as it happens, the current zeitgeist’s ideas–to say the ideas of a contemporary mass audience. In 1962, of course, it didn’t. This story of racial segregation (a law in Virginia against inter-racial marriage upheld until 1967) is being told nearly 55 years since John Glenn was launched into space.

  5. Dena Pickett says:

    Can’t wait to take my family and especially my 13 year old daughter to see a part of history so that she can appreciate how hard it was for women then and she shares with me some of the negative energy she gets from being one is the hard working smart ones. No matter what your race is, every young girl should want even more after seeing an inspiring film like this.

  6. Letterbox Bozo says:

    If they wanted to make a movie about women computers in the Space Program, it’s a shame they limited it to just 3 black women from the book “Hidden Figures” when they could have done a movie based on the book “Rise Of The Rocket Girls”, which included several different races of women computers way before NASA was even created. I guess this is the repercussion of last year’s “all-white” Oscars and those that whined about it.

  7. GFY says:

    I’ve recently decided to stop accepting racist crap that depicts white women as the evil stepsister keeping down the righteous black women. gender is more of a disadvantage than skin color. sick of all the bs the white women don’t support black women–its a two way street. dont expect support from someone while you’re tearing them down
    no interest in this film whatsoever.

  8. Dan Dasson says:

    Leftist can’t stop creating history.
    But its got to be incredibly tempting to rewrite past events to fit the prevailing narrative.
    The subject matter in this film will be fed to every kid in public school as 100% fact…And nobody will ever, ever, question it,

  9. ed says:

    Space Travel— Civil Rights— Social Liberalism. The ’60s sure were an expansive times for the U.S.

    HIDDEN FIGURES is a corrective to all those crew-cutted and polo-shirted NASA documentaries by showing Black women working in the Space Race in Kennedy-era Virginia. It’s hard to imagine the obstacles they faced back then— and maybe ham-handed episodes in this film is what’s needed to show that today.

    Funny how some beliefs trump historical advances now and then…

  10. scottwil says:

    Suggestions that America hasn’t “come a long way, baby” in the last half-century are way off the mark. Yes, we have.

    • @scottwill I was born 10/3/1959, so I have been around this last half-century. So truly we have made progress but not nearly as much as we need to have made. For every 3 steps forward we consistantly make 2 steps backwards. So this is a slow pace of America moving forward. You do the math and my neice will check your figures as she is an unemployed educated electrical engineer. Go figure…

      • Black Queen says:

        It saddens me finally points listening to the stupidity that comes out of the mouths of people. But then I remember where do I expect trash to come from??? My thoughts exactly. So glad Roche the truth is finally coming out about how Colored folks not only built this country but have invented this country. Let truth be TOLD!!! the Truth HURTS!!!

    • Dex says:

      @Scottwil
      Not at all. In fact, the country is regressing. And daily events bear that out.

  11. Michelle says:

    Looking forward to seeing.

  12. Oh goody another race feel good movie-pass.

    • Awake says:

      You should see the movie and go to see it for understanding (not just to respond to it). I think you will learn something from it, if you are open to it.

  13. Bill B. says:

    I saw the previews of this last week. It sure did look like it was filmed by the same who made The Help. Could be entertaining, but it has the same whitewashed look to it.

  14. Alex says:

    Hopefully this will get Ms Henson an Oscar nom….and an Oscar :)

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