Hidden Figures (2016) Directed by Theodore Melfi. With Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali.
After a recent trip to the cinema, a work colleague suggested that Hidden Figures is, and I quote, “A film that makes you ashamed to be white“. While it’s true that much of what happens is enough to make your blood boil, it’s simultaneously the telling of an interesting story of the human endeavour to evolve our understanding of our place in the cosmos.
Set at NASA in 1961, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there’s a poignancy how even at the epicenter of the humankind’s greatest outside-the-box thinkers, skin colour segregation and discrimination were as rife as anywhere. It’s hard to even look at a sign that says ‘Coloured Toilets‘ without feeling an instinctive rush of anger. The film is fronted by three glorious protagonists, in the shape of Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer and most prominently, Taraji P. Henson as genius mathematician, Katherine G. Johnson.
After some research, it appears that much of what is included in the screenplay didn’t happen, or, happened to different individuals to the ones depicted. With that in mind, the film is not to be seen as play-for-play rendition of what occurred – more a temperature gauge as to the societal narrative of time. That narrative is about the everyday struggle to go about your life, because of the colour of your skin. It’s about the brave determination to stand up for what is right. Beyond that, it’s a about the human capability to achieve greatness.
There are large chunks that would make it a starter course companion piece to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, as great minds assemble with limited apparatus to achieve beyond themselves. The film has a notable cast – Kevin Costner carries a strong sense of hardened chivalry as Al Harrison, the man in charge of the team assigned to get an American in space. As per type, Jim Parsons is cast as a sniveling, disapproving type, but sans the snappy punchlines of his sitcom alter ego, Dr Sheldon Cooper. Kirsten Dunst and the hypnotic Mahershala Ali round out the fringe characters, in strong support of the main trio.
Ultimately, the film firmly belongs to Taraji P. Henson’s depiction of a great woman, and the performances of her co-leads – each woman carrying her own sincerity and belief in the material. Together, they’re joyous, which helps the storytelling through some of its more meandering moments. While it feels a touch overlong, the mise en scène is well dressed in the fine detail of 1960’s technology, even though Melfi’s film is guilty of playing pivotal beats so similar to Apollo 13, that you can’t help but take note. But, with a five-star cast and a gradual narrative climb to an upbeat feeling of what human beings can achieve when they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot, Hidden Figures isn’t just about the space race, it’s also about the ongoing need to educate, and, to eradicate the blind inequalities of the human race.