I will admit to you, dear readers, that I was hesitant when I saw the trailer to Hidden Figures. The story behind the film is a very inspirational one for young women and people of color, that is for sure, but it was also helmed by a bunch of white dudes. The director and co-screenwriter? White dude. Kevin Costner being in the film also made me think that the movie’s trailer could trick us and that it could actually be mostly about his character instead with all the racial content kind of being at the forefront as an illusion. In fact, if this movie was made in the 90s or any other decade, the focus would have definitely been on Costner’s very straight-laced but tolerant character. I am happy to report that all my presumptions about the movie were ill-founded.
Hidden Figures tells the story of the first orbit to space by the Americans in 1961 when John Glenn (Glen Powell) eventually orbited the Earth for three entire circulations. That’s not a spoiler – it’s history. The real content of the film involves the people who helped get him there though. Life’s not easy for a black woman in the 1960s but for Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) it is an especially trying time as they navigate their way from the bottom rung of working for NASA. Luckily for Katherine, she is promoted in a way but still must deal with racism and discrimination while working for her tolerant but stern boss (Kevin Costner) and her less kind immediate superior (Jim Parsons).
This is a film about female empowerment, racial inequality and overcoming obstacles, first and foremost. The setting is 1961 in Virginia, which obviously was not the most tolerant place in the world to live if you were not white and/or male. We mainly follow Katherine as she makes her way through life dealing with adversity so we mostly see the world through her eyes. This creates some very interesting and somewhat disturbing scenes. That’s not to say that the film is graphic or violent but there are many scenes in which Katherine enters a room full of white males in suits and the sound almost completely drops out for a moment as every set of eyes looks at her in a judging manner. You really feel their gaze as the viewer and it is simple scenes like that one that creates the most genuine moments in the film.
What I really like about the film is the way in which it goes about presenting the racial unrest. There are not a lot of characters who actively protest one way or another or have these great big revelatory moments (although there is a scene with breathtakingly great acting by Henson in which she yells about all her frustrations in the workplace) but everything that happens just seems to happen because of the time period. For instance, I never got the sense that a majority of the characters were actively racist but rather just inherently so due to buying into the rhetoric of the time. That felt refreshing. In a very funny opening scene involving car troubles and an impatient police officer, our main characters don’t respond with outrage but rather use their wits to impress him and play to his interests about space travel. They even end up getting a police escort from him, which leads to a line that was kind of hokey and on-the-nose but still pretty funny.
Most reviews are praising the acting and this one will be no different. Taraji P. Henson shines as the lead here. She is intelligent, soft-spoken and speaks with such a confidence that at times I really believed the actress knew as much about mathematics as the character herself. Octavia Spencer is the one who walked out of this movie with an Oscar nomination and it’s not hard to see why – she is a strong, powerful smart character but also plays up a frustrated vibe as well as she is not able to move forward at her job despite having all the qualifications necessary for it. Janelle Monae was a surprise here because I only ever thought of her as a singer so her skills as an actress in the movie came as a shock to me. She definitely gets the least to work with out of the three main characters but she plays up the flirty, younger character with the perfect amount of sex appeal and humour. Aside from the main characters, Kevin Costner turns in a dependable solid performance as the good-hearted and hard work-oriented boss. Jim Parsons was another surprise and didn’t resort to his typical ‘Sheldon’ moves from that awful Big Bang Theory show. He also wasn’t super likeable but also managed to keep his character from being completely one-dimensional. I did not expect Kirsten Dunst to show up here and while she didn’t get a whole lot of screen time, the scenes she shares with Octavia stick out as being particularly well-acted. Also, she still looks magnificent.
Each of the leads has at least one very powerful scene that really exemplifies their acting skill in the film. Henson, as I illustrated earlier, has an amazing blow-up in the office as the culmination of a running joke involving her having to run a good half-mile to the nearest “colored” washroom. Costner’s reaction to it is very powerful as well but it doesn’t overshadow Henson’s incredible committment to the scene. Her anger and frustration just pours through the film. Spencer is best in a scene in which she realizes that in order for her and “her girls” (her employees even though she has technically not been promoted to be a supervisor) to retain employment in the face of the new IBM computers, she must learn how to program it so that they will all become invaluable to NASA. How does she do this? Well, she gets a book on FORTRAN from a library and when she and her children are kicked out because they were not in the “colored section,” we learn that she took the book anyway because “I pay my taxes for this library just like everyone else” as she explains to her children. As for Monae, her best moment comes when she wordlessly accepts a judge’s ruling on whether she can attend a segregated high school or not for extensive classes needed for advancement at NASA (where the requirements seem to get larger the closer she gets to them).
The cool part about this movie too is that not only is it about racial tension in America in the 1960s but there is also some pretty cool stuff involving space travel. Although I understood none of the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the inclusion of it is interesting. Also, I could have mentioned this in the acting section but it’s such a small aspect of the film – Glenn Powell as John Glenn is very charming and likeable. He’s rarely on-screen but when he is, he makes for a very enjoyable presence. The tension towards the end of the film is pretty good but of course, it won’t be that unbearable if you’re aware of the true story behind the film.
Check out this film. It’s sure to be one of the year’s best and despite it tackling a tough and sometimes cruel subject, it has a light tone and features some of the best acting from this (and last) year.
(I didn’t note the romantic subplot involving Henson’s love interest, which is fine but ultimately not a particularly strong part of the film. There was just too much to talk about regarding the rest that I didn’t really feel bad leaving it out.)
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)