Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and some language)
Running Time: 2:07
Release Date: 12/25/16 (limited); 1/6/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2016
Necessity is the mother of both invention and social progress in Hidden Figures, an engaging and inspiring story pulled from a lesser-known passage of a page of history. The film follows three women, all of them African-American and employees at NASA's Langley Research Facility in Virginia during the early 1960s. They excel in their respective fields, and they become firsts in those fields, too, because, as one of the women puts it to a judge who will decide her professional future, somebody has to be. Somebody has to stop the cycle that's summed up as such: "That's just the way things are."
That sense of both necessity and inevitability runs throughout these stories. The women begin in unenviable positions, stuck on the underground level of a building that's half a mile away from the facility's main building. The room is assigned for "colored computers," whose work is checking the math for the facility. Their assigned tasks are picked up and dropped off every day. This is treated as some sort of favor to the group by the white woman who oversees the computing department, but when one of our protagonists ventures into a room other than the one that has been assigned to them, the looks on the faces of most of the white men and women tell another story.
The first such look, as well as the first glimmer of hope, comes from a state trooper. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, good in general, although "playing smart" a bit too much), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, who is solid but, unfortunately, left with the least to do of the major characters), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, a force of assertive matter-of-factness) are stuck on the side of the road on their way to work. Their car has broken down, and before Dorothy can fix it, the trooper arrives with his lights swirling. There are suspicion and accusation in his voice, until the women say they work at NASA. The tone and conversation quickly change (the Russians, Sputnik, the astronauts as the best the United States has to have, and "We have to beat those Commies"), and soon enough, the women have a police escort for their drive to work.
This scene represents the pragmatically sunny outlook of the screenplay by Alison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book). Hearts and minds aren't changed by big speeches, philosophical arguments, or even legal decisions (Virginia continues to segregate schools during this period, despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling). Here, prejudice is overcome through routine, daily encounters, as the people on the side of power slowly realize the common ground and shared ideals to which they were blind.
Katherine's proficiency with analytic geometry lands her a temporary job checking the math in the Space Task Group, which manages manned space flights—or, in 1961, the proposed and hypothetical ones. The Space Race is on, and the Soviet Union continues to hold a significant lead. Her new boss is Al Harrison (a very good Kevin Costner), who treats all of his employees—regardless of their gender or skin color—as semi-irritating but necessary components of a greater cause. The goal is to get an American in space.
Meanwhile, Dorothy, whose boss (played by Kirsten Dunst) repeatedly denies her an opportunity for a promotion, takes it upon herself to learn how to program and operate NASA's new, room-filling data-processing machine, and Mary tries to enroll in night classes so that she can apply for a job as an engineer with the organization. For both of these two women, their qualifications keep coming up short, no matter what they do, on account of things being the way they are or suddenly important addendums to the employee handbook.
The prejudice on display in the film is subtle, quiet, and all-encompassing: the assumption that Katherine is a janitor, the boss' plea that Dorothy not "embarrass" her, the stunned looks on her co-workers' faces when Katherine dares to fill her mug with coffee from the community's pot. After the coffee "incident," a new kettle, labeled "colored," suddenly appears in the office. Adding insult to injury, nobody bothers to fill it. If she needs to use the restroom, she has to dash the half-mile back to her previous office area, because it's the only place on the campus where there's a bathroom she is allowed to use.
Once the obstacles of racial discrimination within the facility have been overcome, Katherine still has to contend with the ones in regards to her gender. "There's no protocol," after all, for a woman's presence in important briefings.
The progressive advancement within the facility is born out of necessity. It's the realization that the organization needs these women, who are at the top of their fields or put in the time and effort to place themselves there (Dorothy studies the coding of the new data-processing unit, making her the only person in the facility who actually knows how to operate it). The astronauts in particular—and especially the man who will be the first American to orbit the Earth John Glenn (Glen Powell)—don't care about race or gender, as long as the numbers that their lives depend upon are correct.
The screenplay fleshes out the dynamics within NASA incredibly well, and the struggles of these three women within a specific professional culture and society at large are conveyed with equal insight (Their personal lives, however, come up short, with Katherine going through a routine romance, Mary occasionally debating politics with her husband, and Dorothy having only one scene with her children). Hidden Figures is transparent in its methods of evoking inspiration and encouragement, yes, but it's also a significant story, told well and with feeling.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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