It is not necessarily a compliment for a film to be called an "inspirational" film. Yet, such is the case with Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures, a film that not only tells a story largely unfamiliar to the American moviegoing public but does so in a way that serves as both history lesson and a relentlessly feel good emotional tour-de-force.
It says something pretty special about Melfi and his ensemble cast that they can take a film largely centered around math AND race relations and turn it into such a wonderfully inspiring, entertaining and effective cinematic experience. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the stories of three African-American women who worked for NACA, the precursor to NASA, during the time when the south was mighty segregated and opportunities for educational and professional growth for African-Americans and women were limited.
African-American and woman? Forget it.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) couldn't forget it. In fact, they couldn't forget much of anything. All three gifted at mathematics and employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in a segregated computing department, all three would leave their mark on America's space program while breaking barrier after barrier within both NACA and NASA including being essential to John Glenn's groundbreaking success.
While Hidden Figures deals with challenging and potentially dark subject matter, after all the racism of the early 60's wasn't exactly of the kinder/gentler kind, the film is a PG-rated and family friendly version of what unquestionably had to be a more stressful and challenging time than we see unfold on the big screen.
Katherine, for example, is woefully out of place when her math skills so outshine the others that she ends up being transferred from a segregated work unit into the work area where the mostly white-shirted, white male engineers studiously are working to overcome the Russian's space advantage. Instead of being treated as an equal despite her brilliance, Katherine faces a not so subtle suggestion to use a separate coffeepot while having to race a half-mile across the agency's grounds in heels to use the only "colored women's" bathroom.
Mary, on the other hand, has a husband who doesn't support her dreams to become an engineer and has to go to court for permission to further her education at a local, but segregated, night school.
Then, there's Katherine. An administrative genius with the ability to pick up just about anything, Katherine catches on that those working in computing, just shy of the first computers, will soon be replaced without the ability to adapt to advanced technology. So, despite her only educational options being in a "whites only" section of the library, she goes about teaching herself FORTRAN.
I mean, seriously. Can you believe history has never really praised these women?
The truth is that Hidden Figures plays gentle with the truth. While an opening scene hints at the life-threatening tension of an African-American woman alone on the roads, nearly every scene, including this one, is approached from a way that makes it accessible for the entire family to have deep, meaningful and honest conversations about the past and, unfortunately, the present.
The film's ensemble cast obviously "gets it." They understand the tone that is needed to sell this very important story, though they largely avoid the heightened reverence that can occasionally sink a film such as this one. While the cast is uniformly strong, one must give extra kudos to Janelle Monae, a relative newcomer to the movie scene whose performance here radiates an incredible strength and determination to buck a system that doesn't give her a fair chance.
Octavia Spencer could play Dorothy Vaughan in her sleep, she instead turns in one of her most vibrant and spirited performances while helping to beautifully pace the trio of performances when she, Monae and Henson share the screen.
Of course, one cannot forget to mention Henson, an absolute gem in virtually everything she does and very much the same here. Henson's Katherine, who just this year was honored with the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the agency's Langley Research Facility less than a year after being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a simply extraordinary woman whose challenges and brilliance are given life in Henson's spirited yet emotionally honest performance.
Among the supporting players, Kevin Costner most shines as the no nonsense Al Harrison seems as concerned with removing obstacles to effective work as he is in making any sort of racial statement. As the film's obligatory baddies, presented with a certain degree of grace here, both Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons also shine.
Hidden Figures isn't groundbreaking cinema. It's a feel good, inspirational and entertaining film with winning performances across the board and an incredibly valuable history lesson that's easily accessible for pre-teens and teens. While the film's Oscar buzz feels a bit excessive, Hidden Pictures is such an entertaining flick that even the most hardened cynic can't be too bothered by its praise including receiving the Truly Moving Picture Award from Indy's own Heartland Film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic