HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) review
written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
produced by: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping & Pharrell Williams
directed by: Theodore Melfi
rating: PG (for thematic elements and some language)
runtime: 127 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2016 (limited) and January 6, 2017
The coolest thing about “Hidden Figures” is that audiences are loving it and it’s been doing great financially. That’s cool because the movie has an important, untold real life tale to tell from American history that’s eye-opening and inspiring audiences and it surprised box office expectations. It’s currently grossed $112.1 million, which is fantastic for a movie with a budget of $25 million. Now, I usually don’t bring up how much a movie is bringing in, but it’s clear that like the intelligent African-American women the movie focuses on, “Hidden Figures” was a movie that was ready to be overlooked and passed over. Here is a genuine crowd-pleaser as well as a rare movie that succeeds because of the story it’s telling, not necessarily how its telling it.
“Hidden Figures” is definitely entertaining and endearing with tactful humor and heart-tugging moments, but what it does best is give viewers an a look at resilience that leads to empowerment and perseverance that overcomes oppression. That right there is more powerful than most viewers or filmmakers can imagine – especially as seen from the perspective of a young African-American girl. I specify age, gender and race specifically, since an individual that can check off all three will always be in need of inspiration to combat the unfortunate expectations America has placed on them.
So, while some critics and viewers will see “Hidden Figures” and shrug their shoulders and maybe reluctantly agree it’s a great viewing experience, what is absent is an understanding of the timeless necessity of such a story. The fact that it’s a true story makes it all the more necessary, albeit somewhat frustrating as well.
The story takes place in the early 1960s, where we learn of three black women who work for NASA at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Right away, it is emphasized and reiterated that they are women and they are black, and rightly so. Both of those obvious descriptors were an odd find back then, as witnessed by the white sheriff who pulled over when he saw the trio with car trouble alongside a country road as they were making their way to work. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monáe) are used to the looks and the shock when white folk find out what they do for a living, but that doesn’t mean they like it. They’ve just learned to deal with it (well, Mary gets help from the other two), especially considering their coworkers and managers are predominately white males. The bigotry and prejudice is rampant in society and is felt by these intelligent women as they endure unfulfilling roles in their workplace. They could just be glad they have jobs, but when they’re constantly unappreciated, overlooked or taken for granted, it can start to wear on a soul.
Katherine and Mary are mathematicians, who work as computers – literally, one who calculates/computes numbers, since what we know as computers were the size of refrigerators back then – alongside several other black women (in their own wing, away from the white NASA employees) who are overseen by Dorothy, who is also a mathematician. This is during a time when America was in a Space Race with other countries, particularly with Russia and when the Soviets manage to successfully launch a satellite in orbit, the pressure is on for NASA to step up. What will it take for the U.S. to get a manned spacecraft into space?
Well, that’s what Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, typically comfortable in a 60s role), director of the Space Task Group at NASA, wants to know. His department is in charge of making sure the astronauts leave and return to Earth safely, which involves elements are considered thoroughly. Therefore, the math and science of the mission needs to be scoured, analyzed and verified, so no mistakes will be made. The trickle-down pressure is on, finding Al determined to get the best people on board to meet their goal.
Dorothy’s manager, Vivian Marshall (a flat, one-dimensional Kirsten Dunst), assigns the smartest computer, Katherine, to work under Al’s head engineer, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, in another one-note role), and has Mary transferred to engineering where she will work with Polish aeronautics engineer, Karl Zielinski (Aleksander Krupa) to determine the safety of the actual craft. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s request to be promoted to the position of supervisor (a job she’s already doing) is shot down by Vivian, stating baseless red tape reasons other than the real issue of designating a “colored” woman in the such a prominent role.
It takes a while, but Al eventually realizes the value of Katherine’s brilliance and ability to think outside the box. She hits her breaking point and provides Al with an alarming wake-up call regarding the workplace segregation and prejudice he was unaware of, which has prevented her from working at an efficient and optimum level. With time working against them to ensure the numbers are right for the “Friendship 7” mission helmed by John Glenn (a warm and genial, Glen Powell) to meet its deadline, the three women feel the pressure as they must learn, persevere and prove their worthiness to ensure the nation’s space travel goal is a successful reality.
Of course, it happens – it all worked out or else there wouldn’t have been an inspiring story to adapt into a movie. There would also be no reason for writer, Margot Lee Shetterly to pen a non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, published just last year. It also provides Allison Schroeder, an opportunity to adapt that book for the big-screen with director Theodore Melfi (who gave the script a polish after Schroeder handed in her draft), a perfect fit for the NASA-loving screenwriter. And as far as “based on a true story” movies go, “Hidden Figures” is indeed offering something different than a typical biopic in that it doesn’t look at one specific person, nor does it follow certain characters from childhood to present. The Oscar-nominated screenplay understandably alters some details in order to serve the story in an emotionally cohesive manner, adding subtle changes to characters while maintaining the overall messages. This is essentially how three determined black woman upended a white men’s club and the screenplay definitely highlights the struggles and challenges each of these three women faced, internally and professionally.
“Hidden Figures” is never heavy-handed even though it could be. Instead it’s a tastefully done movie set during a turbulent time in the States, as seen through the focused story of three unknown women who were integral to history – not just American history either. Sadly, it is a timeless story, in that women (not just black women) are still often marginalized and often underutilized in a sexist environment where mansplaining runs rampant. This is why it is a true delight to see three woman pushing forward, despite daily adversity and relying on their hard work to speak for their importance and value.
It is necessary for “Hidden Figures” to submit viewers to the bigotry and racism these woman endured throughout the movie. We have to be reminded that at just about every turn they were faced with how they were seen by others and how that limits their contributions and growth. Although Katherine works with the Space Task Force, whenever she has to relieve herself, she has to run back to the wing where the “colored” restrooms are, which is clear across campus. She also has to drink from a coffee pot labeled “colored” by her white colleagues. There is admirable resilience on display here from these women – like when we see Mary cleverly appeal to a local judge to grant her permission to take an all white night class that will enable her to receive an engineering degree and we also see how Dorothy takes it upon herself to learn Fortran in order to learn the language needed to understand and operate the new IBM super computers that the white guys seem to be having trouble with. Their determination in the face of opposition is a valuable lesson to women, especially black women, and provides an important lesson in maintaining a specific goal.
It’s understandable that the three lead actors of “Hidden Figures” have the most fully-realized characterizations of the movie, yet there are two surprisingly well written supporting roles that could’ve usually been given a stereotypical treatment. Those roles are the black men in the personal lives of the characters played by Monae and Henson. Aldis Hodge plays Levi, Mary Jackson’s husband who could’ve easily gone the route of the unsupportive spouse, but instead winds up the exact opposite with an arch that gives the character an unexpectedly concerned emotional support that Monae’s Mary desperately needs. The great Mahershala Ali (who had a banner 2016 with his Oscar-nominated role in “Moonlight”, along with solid supporting work in “Free State of Jones” and “Kick”, as well as his work in “Luke Cage” and “House of Cards” on Netflix) provides a typically great performance as military man Jim Johnson, who quietly comes into the life of Henson’s Katherine in a atypical gentle manner that is respectful of a single mother of three. Ali’s work with Henson and her family is so enjoyable that I could’ve easily watched a movie that focused solely on the courtship between these two characters. While “Hidden Figures” certainly offers great material for Spencer, Monae and Henson, it is a delight to see well-written roles for two roles that could’ve gone down the path of the conventionally unsupportive black men usually seen on screen.
Balancing three lead characters is rarely seen in this genre and would understandably present its challenges, but Schroeder and Melfi manage to offer Dorothy, Mary and Katherine with fully-realized and complex characterization that enrich the actors and the overall movie. Monáeis the standout of the three, considering her work as Mary is only her second visible acting role (along with her great work in “Moonlight” along with co-star Ali) in 2016. Primarily known as a singer/songwriter, Monáe delivers a recognizable strength and complexity to a confident character that would’ve been considered the “brash, big-mouth role” in any other movie. Spencer is good, but I would’ve preferred to see her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress go to Monáe, mainly for surprising audiences with some noticeably fine work.
That being said, Henson’s work as Katherine should not be overlooked. Hers is perhaps the most complex role to get into, as the somewhat timid brilliant mind who’s used to silently figuring out mathematical problems in her head, who eventually has to come out and verbally stand up for herself and her fellow sisters who are being overlooked by the white people at NASA. One particular scene stands out, where we see Katherine erupt in front of Costner and everyone else who report to him, explaining why she was always missing throughout each work day. Apparently no one bothered to consider or ask how far she had to travel to use the restroom. It’s a pivotal moment in an award-worthy role from an actress who continuously delivers fine work, that alas went snubbed by the Academy. So be it, we know that she rocked that role. As a trio, the necessary chemistry between the three leads is obvious and wonderful.
The direction from Melfi is being overlooked by some critics as “serviceable”, but I noticed that he moves the story along at a good pace, keeping audiences connected to three characters in what is chiefly a math and science drama. He deftly handles the material without providing anything cheap or manipulative to lessen the movie’s absorbing tone and deserving potency. Another surprising element that could’ve worked against the movie are the infectious songs provided by Pharell Williams (which surprisingly did not earn any Oscar nominations). There is an expectation of popular music from the era, but the original tunes from co-producer Williams adds a nice liveliness alongside the beautiful score composed by veteran Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (“A Cure for Wellness”) that never detracts from the period the story takes place in.
It’s no surprise that audiences are responding favorably to “Hidden Figures”, since it’s a rare drama that harkens back to those entertaining true stories that Hollywood used to produce decades ago. It’s a rated-PG movie that’s appropriate and important for all ages, emphasizing education and applicable problem solving, making it an understandable nomination for Best Picture.