Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons
The three black women at the center of this true story broke new ground. This biopic itself doesn’t.
Instead, Hidden Figures tells its tale with standard structure, arcs, and pacing. But it does it so well! The acting is phenomenal, the scenes are tight and relevant, the photography is sumptuous, and the art direction is joyous. This means the movie is simply a pleasure to watch.
So what if the plot never sends us into orbit. It’s still a well-made film.
Katharine Johnson (Henson) is the central character. She was a child genius who went to work for NASA, helping the US launch our space program in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Johnson always showed brains and downright ingenuity in the face of racism and sexism. Because of these qualities, Johnson shared a lot with her coworkers and dear friends Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (Spencer and Monae respectively).
These three powerhouse women navigated politics and phobias, finding ways to make things work against gargantuan odds and prejudices. It’s all true; Hidden Figures both refers to the math Johnson found to help us into space and these women’s lost history, now finally told.
Is this a movie we need to see now? It’s even more. It’s a timeless movie, with value and weight. It has a valuable message, but it does feel preachy.
Most of the weight falls on Henson (Benjamin Button, TV’s Empire). She shows she’s up to carrying a film. Henson envelops Johnson’s mental prowess, with her sly cat’s –eye glasses yet steely resolve.
Spencer’s Vaughan is more cautious. Yet, she refuses to step aside for the newfangled computer. As the supervisor to the other black women holed up in a shady NASA office without windows, Vaughan is an example of chutzpah and strength.
In only her second film (after the stellar Moonlight), Monae is the fiery one. Her determination to get an engineer’s degree – despite the challenges of the law – may be a little more selfish. However, she also is an excellent role model.
I don’t think anyone will be deeply surprised by Hidden Figures‘ plot. Nor will we be ecstatic over the very traditional script and biopic structure. Yet, what matters is that these things are done well. Hidden Figures is a stellar example of impeccable taste and execution. In fact, it’s almost numerically plotted to perfect point.
In that way, the film also mirrors the exacting, correct mathematics of its extraordinary, brilliant heroines.