THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Hidden Figures tells an important story that most people don't know. Now more of them will, and that's something to be excited about. Back in the 1960s, a group of African-American women proved vital to America's first space missions. They were unheralded, despite indispensable contributions. Their tale was told in Margot Lee Shetterly's book, on which this film is based. Seeing it dramatized will, hopefully, further them getting their proper due.
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematics whiz who works at NASA's West Computing Group – a collection of African-American women housed in a Langley, Virginia basement, far from the white workers. Because of her expertise in analytic geometry, Katherine is eventually bumped up to the Space Task Group, run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). He's overseeing a planned orbit of the Earth by astronaut John Glenn, and her job is to double-check the math of the group's white men, who are trying to figure out how to accomplish the task. Despite being more skilled than they are, Katherine is largely pushed into the background. Only when she gets Harrison's full attention is she able to offer more substantial ideas.
Also working in the West Computing Group are Katherine's two friends. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) oversees the group and, later, spots a chance to advance herself and her workers when NASA buys some fancy computers. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) gets a position working on the Mercury capsule. She wants to join an engineer training program, but the classes are only open to whites.
Hidden Figures shows how difficult it was for these intelligent, highly-competent women to earn recognition, simply because of the color of their skin. Some struggles are handled humorously, like the way Katherine has to run all the way across the facility to use one of the few “black” restrooms. Others are depicted more dramatically, such as her clashes with a white male coworker (Jim Parsons) who refuses to recognize her as an equal. Dorothy, meanwhile, finds herself frequently at odds with a white personnel supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) with a penchant for looking down at African-American employees.
Hidden Figures tells the tale of these women in an uplifting, crowd-pleasing manner, never going too, too deeply into the darkest recesses of racism in the Jim Crow South. While that might seem a little disingenuous, the approach feels justified. This is a movie intended to celebrate. It shows just enough of what they were up against to make it clear how necessary their work was to the space program's success, and how lost it would have been had their contributions been forbidden. In fact, focusing on some of the everyday institutional types of racism is more effective than it may seem. The white men in the Space Task Group, for instance, refuse to allow Katherine to use their coffee pot. By honing in on such “small” examples, the movie emphasizes how pervasive discrimination was. Many people simply didn't think twice about it, which is, in its own way, just as bad as intentionally propagating it.
Splendid performances give the film full power. Taraji P. Henson is outstanding as Katherine, whose patience with the barriers put up in front of her wears thin. The actress conveys a key character quality, which is that Katherine is confident in her own abilities and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. That makes her continual progression out of the shadows completely convincing. Octavia Spencer brings a wonderful shrewdness to Dorothy, whose attention to the tiny details allows her to foresee a big opening. The scene stealer is singer Janelle Monae, who provides Mary with sass and spunk, earning laughs with her not-gonna-take-any-BS attitude.
Credit must also go to Kevin Costner, who is dependably solid as Al Harrison, the man who wants the mission to succeed so badly that he prioritizes talent over race. It's a quintessential “Kevin Costner role,” not unlike others he's played in the past, but he does this sort of thing so well, and with such authenticity, that you just can't imagine anyone else in the part.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), Hidden Figures combines humor and drama to reveal the inspiring journey of these three women, whose know-how and competence were so strong that they couldn't be denied. Not even the walls of prejudice could restrain them. As the movie builds to its joyous climax of the successful orbit, you find yourself leaning forward, almost as if into the film itself. To say it enthralls you would be an understatement.
And since we all know how the orbit turned out, that quality is 100% because of how invested we become in the women at the center of it all. They are true American heroes, and Hidden Figures is a rousing tribute to them.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hidden Figures is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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