In the 1960’s there was such a palpable air of progress in the United States, the sense that so many great things were just beyond the horizon. This feeling existed despite the fact that there were dangerous things ahead in 1961, like the Vietnam War, the disruptions that plagued the year 1968, and so many other things. But the decade started off on a hopeful note as President Kennedy took office and the Civil Rights movement was on the march, the slow and steady march of progress. We’ve seen many stories on the big screen of the more high-profile steps in the Civil Rights movement like the Selma march or the fight for the Civil Rights Act in the past couple of years in films like Selma and All the Way, both excellent. Hidden Figures takes place in a part of the movement that has not yet been put on screen, but one that is still very essential to tell. The part of the movement that didn’t take place on the big public streets of America’s major cities, but in offices and working spaces where women like Katherine Johnson made progress. It just so happens that her story takes place in NASA at the height of the Space Race.
Hidden Figures takes place at the beginning of the 1960’s, with Katherine Goble, played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson, played by newcomer Janelle Monae, who also dazzled in this year’s Moonlight, starting out as “computers.” Not the technical kind developed by IBM, those don’t play into the story till much later, but as human computers in the literal sense, set aside on the farthest reaches of the Langely Research Center of NASA in Hampton, Virginia. They do the math that NASA needs, but at less pay and still under the “separate but equal” regime of pre-Civil Rights Act Virginia. They’re reminded that if they don’t like driving together that they can always take the back of the bus. Dorothy constantly asks her boss Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, whether the position of Supervisor is open for their office, considering she already does the work without the title or pay, and is constantly shut down. Mary accepts that she’ll never be an engineer, telling her boss it’s not possible, only to be reminded that she’s working on a rocket ship. Very few things are impossible with that in mind.
From there it’s a steady march for progress as Katherine is brought into the central calculations office at NASA, where she is forced to use a recently-installed “colored” coffee pot, accept the stares from her White male coworkers, and check their math with half of the calculations redacted. Not to mention every time she needs to go to the bathroom she has to walk half-a-mile to go to the only “colored” female bathroom in the complex. However, she’s also the only one in the room capable of doing he calculations that her boss, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, director of the Space Task Group, needs to get the program off the ground. Katherine alone is capable of the sort of geometry, and is willing to fight to show her value to everyone around her. As NASA begins to install IBM computers, Dorothy decides to become an expert in computer programming so that she can stay useful. Mary wants to be an engineer, but can only do so by going to an all-White school. All three actresses, Henson, Spencer, and Monae, do amazing work. Henson especially had me worried in the beginning that she might be playing a stereotypical nerd, but brings such emotional gravitas to the role that you can’t help but fall in love with her. Spencer does a great job as well, slowly building her talents and proving herself as a leader. Monae provides an excellent brand of heart and humor, but is more than capable of delivering the weight needed for her courtroom date when she fights for what she knows is right.
The screenplay, written by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel of the same name, walks a very thin line between being cheesy and being smart, and almost always lands on the side of smart. What’s left doesn’t come off as cheesy, it comes off as spirited thanks to the excellent work of the actors. Costner does a great job as well, reminding everyone of the task at hand and what needs to be done to accomplish them, he seems like a natural leader. Just like Katherine he’s able to look beyond the numbers, or in this case the colors of people’s skin, in order to see what’s the best way to get the job done. Dunst, along with Jim Parsons who plays one of Katherine’s coworkers, both do a decent job and largely play one-note characters until the very end. Mahershala Ali, like fellow Moonlight co-star Monae, is having a banner year of his own, appearing here as Katherine’s boyfriend Jim Johnson, whose role in the National Guard reminds everyone of the wide progress being made. Also worth noting is the excellent music, provided by Hans Zimmer but more importantly Pharrell Williams’ excellent songs, whose songs provides plenty of energy as an undercurrent for the film. In particular the song “Running” stood out to me.
Hidden Figures succeeds in being a wonderful tale of progress and community, proving what is possible when people come together to get things done. There is great acting, good writing, and a solid vision of what the movie can do when all of the elements work together, just like in the movie. The story succeeds on every level thanks to a wonderful sense of purpose for each of the actor’s involved, and even though it isn’t as hard-hitting or attempting to be as artistic as Moonlight, it more than makes up for it with spirit and charm. It’s also a wonderful reminder that there is always progress being made, and is always lively. Needless to say I defy anyone to walk out of this movie without a big smile on their face, and I’m not afraid to say it, but a sense of hope for the future.