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I have a soft spot for “based on true stories” that illuminate some incident that has not been fully understood or feature some individual whose contributions to history have been largely forgotten, and, while I concede the term “based on a true story” covers a multitude of sins, the women whose story is told in Hidden Figures deserve to be in the spotlight.
Featuring brilliant and fully realized performances by Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women whose careers at NASA influenced not only the burgeoning Space Race, but the history of automated computers. Set during the heady days of the race with the USSR to get man into space, the movie connects with its audience both by casting powerhouse actors in its central roles and by expertly playing patriotic notes to the fullest.
The lead cast is truly wonderful. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, the character around whom most of the story revolves. A widowed mother of 3 little girls, Johnson works at NASA as a “human computer.” Identified by her teachers as a gifted mathematics student, Johnson was able to go to college early thanks to the generosity of her teachers and people from her town, and she was able to develop her amazing mind. Henson plays her as brilliant but unassuming, aware of her reality and her responsibilities. She knows she is a black woman in a white man’s world and, until the inevitable moment of crisis emerges, Henson’s Johnson is willing to follow those rules, unjust though they may be.
Though Henson’s is the film’s central character, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer is equally compelling as Dorothy Vaughn, a woman whose contributions assisting NASA in moving from human computers to actual IBM computers were invaluable. Dorothy is also more involved in the Civil Rights struggle as we see her character explain the Montgomery Rides and the lunch counter sit in scenarios to her sons. Spencer brings a quiet dignity to the character, and a knowing wit. She is excellent, as always.
But Janelle Monae almost steals the movie as Mary Jackson, an engineer on the space capsule who seeks a court order to allow her to attend college night classes held at a local high school. The movie is deliberate – and that is a fine thing for this type of film – but when Monae’s Jackson is on the screen, the energy picks up considerably. Like the other performances, Monae’s is pitch perfect and charismatic.
Kevin Costner (I LOVE me some Kevin Costner) is on hand as the no-nonsense supervisor of the program attempting to get an American in orbit before the Russians do and, for my money, there are few who play earnest exasperation as well as he. Though his Al Harrison may be a little too good (a scene where he discusses “white” and “colored” bathrooms seems a bit over-the-top), Costner balances this almost unreal morality with a very real passion: to work as hard as possible as long as possible to achieve the goals of the Space Race.
Jim Parsons, best known as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is along as well and, in a smart career move, plays a fairly unlikable character as does the talented Kirsten Dunst. Both are very good here, too.
If there was a thing that bothered me (and it was a small thing) it was this: the movie seems very sanitized. The language is fairly PG, the situations relatively simple and, for a movie that takes place in the mid-to-late 1960, there is surprisingly little smoking – in that there is none. Clearly the film makers are aiming for the widest audience they can get, and I don’t blame this. Hidden Figures is a story that should be told and, while this sanitized view of the 60s took me out of the film, I understand the choice.
It is not surprising that black women can do math spectacularly well. It is not surprising that black women are smart, smarter than some of their white peers. It is not surprising that, in the time this movie took place, the obstacles and barriers placed in front of black women were far more difficult to navigate and far higher than those placed in front of their white counterparts. What is also not surprising but sounds a note of hopefulness in this particular moment of American history, is that there were people, black and white women and men, who saw past color and gender, who knew that good ideas come from everywhere and everyone and who championed the concept that color and gender were secondary considerations to competence and quality.
Hidden Figures is a wonderful film and a worthy one. It seems to have found an audience and, on this particular weekend at this particular point in time, that makes me very, very hopeful.
HIDDEN FIGURES receives FOUR AND A HALF DIFFERENTIAL EQUATIONS out of a possible FIVE.