Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi starring Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner, is based on a true story that tells the tale of a team of African American women who worked within NASA around the time of its first successful space missions in the 1960s. Henson plays Katherine Goble Johnson, the real life mathematician who contributed greatly to the space program throughout her career.
Having seen this film and Moonlight at a double screening, if you were to have asked me beforehand which I expected to be the better film, I would have gambled my house on Moonlight. However, by the time Hidden Figures had finished, had I made that bet I would have been homeless.
Not to say that Hidden Figures is a perfect film or a particularly good one, for that matter, but as a feel-good crowd pleaser it falls on the right side of things and gets right what it needs to get right. Hidden Figures’ central conceit is an interesting one; how can a nation on the forefront of doing something that humanity could only dream of (launching a spaceship into outer space) be so far behind when it comes to how it treats its own people, in particular the African American community who were segregated and pretty much second class citizens in the USA at the time. Now I don’t mind movies depicting historical oppression as long as it isn’t the same story repeating itself, which seems to be often the case. I don’t ask for much, all I need is a different location or setting or slight tweak to the formula to interest me. Setting a story with undertones of African American historical oppression in NASA was just the tweak that was needed to revitalize the formula to an extent. I find movies about oppression set in the past much more interesting in general because there is a real sense of conflict that is a pressing concern of the time, so it translates well into film. Unlike, for instance, if the same type of movie was set in present day. A society that is built around oppressing a race works much better as a film when it feels relevant, which is most commonly found in a film set in the past. There is a sense of urgency and genuine struggle that perfectly lends itself to cinematic narrative when it is done right.
The film is very lighthearted and presented with a fun, comic edge, scenes where Katherine Goble runs half a mile down the road to find a coloured bathroom (because there is none in the part of NASA where she works) is accompanied by an enjoyable, bouncy, Pharrell soundtrack, and is played in a similar kind of tone as somebody who is rushing because they are late for work. Not to say there isn’t plenty of moments of grandstanding later on, and plenty of boo-hiss-able opposition from people within NASA, who just don’t seem to understand the injustice that occurs.
Another thing I appreciated about Hidden Figures was seeing these women progress through hard work in a world naturally set up to marginalize them. And I would be lying if I said, as cornball and by the numbers as the film’s emotional fishing for sentiment was, that it didn’t at least work on me some of the time. Hidden Figures, is the type of feel good movie that works, it isn’t anything special I would also add, but for its target demographic and if you are in the mood for a buoyant, sprightly feel good movie, then Hidden Figures is certainly that.
Originally published on Feb 17, 2017 for UK Film Review.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder
Cast: Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner