Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Runtime: 2 hrs 7 minutes
Hollywood loves BOAT, that is, films Based On a True Story, and few are as overdue yet timely as Hidden Figures. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, it tells the story of a team of African-American women who worked at NASA and their integral roles in helping the U.S. advance during the Space Race during the Cold War era. Billed as ‘human computers,’ these women are the quintessential unsung heroes with an inspirational and important story to tell.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe star as Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson respectively. A trifecta of massively talented Black actresses who brought wit, grace and humor to their roles. The film is at times harrowing to watch and it made me sad and angry at the appalling treatments of Black people, especially women, during a time when racial segregation was still legally enforced in the country. The fact that this happened merely 50 some years ago literally gives me chills. Yet the film never descended into somber or depressing territory, but it was brimming with a defiant but hopeful spirit throughout.
Right from the opening scene when their car broke down and they had to deal with the white cop who arrived to question them instead of offering to help, there’s a lighthearted tone to the film. It’s not that the filmmakers are making light of the situation however, in fact, this is a crowd-pleasing film that’s told with equal amusement and gravitas. Even during a key scene where Katherine had to walk half a mile one way just to go to the colored bathrooms, drink from a separate coffee kettle marked ‘colored’ and endure constant belittlement from her colleagues, the film never felt too heavy-handed or overly-sentimental. There’s also the moment Dorothy was kicked out of the Virginia public library for venturing out of the ‘colored’ section. Spencer’s Dorothy remained dignified and defiant as she rode home on the bus with her young boys.
It’s hard to pick a favorite out of the three female protagonists, as they’re all excellent and given an equally compelling character arc. Henson’s Katharine seemed to have the largest arc of the three and it’s such a joy to watch her in the role. She had to act several scenes writing complex mathematical formula on a board in a single long take, and she managed to do it effortlessly and believably. All three women were convincing in their roles, their portrayals felt real instead of simplistic caricatures. The memorable male characters are Kevin Costner as the director of the Space Task Group, Mahershala Ali as Katharine’s love interest and Glen Powell as John Glenn. None of them ever overshadowed the women, but adds a perspective of the gender/racial issues of the time. On a side note, this movie made me curious to check out The Right Stuff now which chronicles the space race.
I’m glad I waited to do my top 10 list until January as this film merits a spot on there. Boasting beautiful cinematography by Mandy Walker and rousing music by Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, film also looks AND sounds great. It’s an important film to be sure, but also a well-written and well-acted piece that’s as inspiring as it is entertaining. It made me laugh and cry, with an ending that made me want to get up and cheer. I certainly don’t mind watching this again.
Have you seen Hidden Figures? What did you think?