Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell | Written by Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder | Directed by Theodore Melfi
1961. Yuri Gagarin is about to leave Earth, and Alan Shepherd is not far behind. The USA is desperate to beat the Russians into space. But in Hidden Figures, global politics take a back seat – this isn’t a film about a Space Race, but the slow marathon to social equality. The revolution is through “math” and engineering. Those who cringe at the sound of chalk on blackboards, beware: Hidden Figures contains some serious equation-based grandstanding.
Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) work at the segregated “West Group” at NASA. Mary is a wannabe engineer. Dorothy yearns to be a supervisor, a job she already commands but for the title and the pay. And Katherine – once a child genius and now an adult genius – has been invited to join the East Group, a coveted gang of mathematicians led by the determined Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).
Katherine’s introduction to the East Group is an extended exercise in awkwardness which agonisingly puts us into the shoes of someone rendered the outsider. In her way is Paul (Jim Parsons), embodying the distrust of the in-group. He’s threatened by having a black woman checking his figures. Cripplingly officious, he represents the absurdity of segregation of any kind, keeping Katherine out of daily meetings because it’s men-only and that’s “just the way it is”.
Meanwhile, Dorothy is experiencing tension with her racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Dorothy is being held to a different standard, and promotion looks like a dead-end. But she’s smart, teaching herself and her team to program the new IBM machine, to ensure they have jobs. And finally there’s Mary, who’s trying to get her engineering qualifications, but how can she when the college is for white males only?
John Glen (Glen Powell), the corniest and whitest of all-American heroes, needs to get into space and he needs to get back down. The nation needs trajectories. And it seems like only the ladies have the answers. Can NASA break down the barriers of prejudice so that they can win this glorious, bloodless war?
In this Trump era of US tech staff separated from their parent companies, here’s a timely reminder of a not-too-distant past when ethnic segregation was commonplace. Quite aside from the moral madness of such a system, Hidden Figures reminds us that it’s a practical barrier to progress. Harrison is no social justice crusader; he’s a boss whose team isn’t working efficiently, and it’s the separation of labour that is inefficient. Hidden Figures’ message might be simple, but it’s no less simple than, say, the motivation behind prejudice.
Hidden Figures succeeds not just for its message but for the efficiency and accessibility of its storytelling. It sketches its characters in a very natural way and with minimal blunt exposition, relying instead on interplay, and the obvious chemistry of its leads. Henson, Spencer and Monáe bounce around like they’ve known each other forever, teasing and bickering and supporting like friends do. And while their circumstances frequently single them out, they never respond as victims. There is safety in their humour. The first meeting between Katherine and the hunky Colonel Johnson (Mahershala Ali) is a comic delight; and the way she rejects his advances is even more delightful.
The cinematography occasionally slips into classy TV movie territory, but there are still meaningful visual moments. When Dorothy and Vivian talk in the mirror of a shared bathroom, the images and editing – designed to give a sense that each is casting the other’s reflection – give them equivalence; a brief equality. Such filmmaking decisions are not accidental. And there are truly cinematic moments, too. The sight of 30 black women leaving their typewriters behind and striding down a NASA corridor to go and program computers – because they’re the only ones who know how – is exhilarating, and rightly given its own Big Moment.
But it’s in the Oscar-nominated script that Hidden Figures really shines. The clarity of language and purpose is perhaps epitomised by Mary’s speech to a court judge, as she speaks clearly yet profoundly about being the “first”, cleverly appealing to his ego as well as his intellect.
Given the nature of the ladies’ defiance, there is ostensibly a narrow range of emotion on show. The women largely keep their cool, and it’s up to us to feel outraged. At first I felt this had the effect of making certain events feel slight. But upon reflection, the women simply represent a different form of protest: dignified, but no less angry than what we saw in, say, last year’s Selma. And boy, when someone does explode, the outburst has real impact.
Finally, there is the musical score, which is unusually understated for the genre – and that despite the presence of Hans Zimmer. Pharrell Williams adds soul and energy, keeping things light, eschewing potential broodiness.
You can instantly recognise the parts of reality which have been Hollywoodised in its translation from the non-fiction book of the same name. Does it matter? Not really. The core facts, regardless of embellishment, are genuinely astonishing. Layer on top of that truth a very efficient script, tone-perfect absurdist humour, universally strong performances, and deceptively complex themes, and you’ve got to concede that sometimes the Academy do get it right. Hidden Figures is a tremendous film.
Hidden Figures is out in cinemas from 17 February.