Over the past few years, we’ve been getting a number of films telling stories of African American people during the 60’s that previously had not been put on screen before. We saw the first big film about Jesse Owens with Race, a biopic of Jackie Robinson with 42 and a film about Martin Luther King and the Selma marches with Selma. However, those stories all lacked another key perspective, that of women, and that’s where Hidden Figures comes in, telling the story of the African American women working for NASA during the 60’s, something which I wasn’t even aware of before the film was announced, and I have to say, the film is a worthy introduction to the legacy of these women.
The plot concerns the work of three black women at NASA during 1961, prior to the orbit of John Glenn around the Earth, these women being Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who becomes the only black woman in the Space Task Group, Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, aspiring because she isn’t allowed to take the classes that would let her qualify as an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn, the unofficial supervisor of the ‘computers’ (as they were known) in the coloured section of NASA. Over the course of the film, we see their attempts to be recognised for their work, and even conduct their work, with two major catalysts for them, the aforementioned flight of John Glenn, and the introduction of the IBM computer at NASA, which has the potential to put all of the human ‘computers’ out of work. Now the film doesn’t shy away from the racist and sexist conditions that are faced by the women in the film, at different points each of the women being treated in an inferior way, despite their intelligence, purely because of their race. This creates some heartbreaking moments throughout the film, helping put you in the mindset of the characters and making the moments when the characters see success all the more uplifting. What helps this meanwhile is the strong sense of humour throughout the film, the harsher elements are accounted for but the humour creates a sense of optimism throughout that helps put you on the side of the main characters. The film also does a good job at making maths look cinematic, the framing of Katherine doing the equations being akin to an action film at some points, making what would normally be some of the most boring elements in a film like this some of the most exciting.
The performances are what make the film though, in particular Taraji P Henson as Katherine. She shows off the intelligence of the character brilliantly, along with a lighthearted side to her through her love for her children and her growing relationship with Jim Johnson, played brilliantly (albeit briefly) by Mahershala Ali. She also gives some of the more powerful moments in the film as the weight of the racism she’s experiencing finally caves in on her. Octavia Spencer is also great as Dorothy. Through her body language and tone of voice, you know that Vaughn is someone that you do not mess with, along with her showing the intelligence and forward thinking of the character, learning FORTRAM so she could programme the IBM computers, which also leads into a protectionist streak that she has, both for women she supervises and for her children. Most of the humour in the film comes from Janelle Monae, she has great comic timing throughout the film, whilst also mixing in some great pathos for the character. Outside of the main three, Kevin Costner is as good as you’d expect as the head of the Space Task Force, having a good authoritative style, Jim Parsons shows why he is one of the best people at playing arrogant, egotistical, insufferable geniuses and Kirsten Dunst personifies the unintentional racism that people at the time exhibited, even when they think they aren’t being racist.
On a technical level, the production design and costume design does a good job at replicating the feel of the early 60’s, everything from the cars, to the subtle elements of the costumes, to the overall design of the different rooms in NASA and the replication of the old IBM’s is brilliantly handled. The direction and editing is solid throughout and the music does a good job at creating a sense of both humour and pathos, adding to the heartwarming nature of the film.
Overall, Hidden Figures is about as good a film as you can get from this premise. It is definitely an old fashioned film, but that’s not a bad thing here. This is a story that has been overlooked for a long time and now we’ve finally got it, it’s just as interesting, engaging and effective as you’d hope it would be.
My Rating: 4/5