A feel-good celebrating the extraordinary behind-the-scenes people that make history happen.
The 2016 biopic ‘Hidden Figures‘ relates the story of NASA’s “computers”, the African-American women who did all the manual calculations for the early space missions of the 1960s. A film reflecting a time when being Black meant a daily struggle for acceptance and equality seemed like just a dream. Yet, these women rose up and fought for a well-earned place in human history.
Focusing on math-prodigy Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, stellar) and her friends/colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (a reckoning-force Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). With able support from a back to charmer-mode Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.
After a perfunctory child-prodigy intro the story stays on a straight “A to B to C” path. This isn’t some flashy, gritty exploration of 1960s race relations or of NASA. It’s meant to elevate these virtual unknowns to public heroes who not only broke barriers in the all-white boys club of NASA but were a critical component in getting John Glenn into space.
The performances are genuine and done with a light touch. Despite the obvious examples of racism/sexism on display, the point of view stays tuned towards building a better future and not in tearing apart a woefully unjust past. Staying positive lets us breathe, allowing the audience to laugh along with the absurdity rather than eliciting too much historically contextualized anger/shame.
Sure there’s plenty of Hollywood crafted melodrama moments, including a countdown sequence at the end. And everything gets wrapped into a pretty bow. Still, gotta give respect to director Theodore Melfi for putting the heart first and leaving “reality” behind in deference to the needs of the story. Something he also did quite well for his previous feature, the notably darker Bill Murray piece, ‘St. Vincent’.
Special note to Mahershala Ali who plays Katherine’s love interest “Col. Jim Johnson“. Ali and Henson have a beautiful chemistry together and, although, his presence does little for the main story it helps elevate this incredible woman as we glimpse into her devoted personal life.
Got to hand it to Hollywood. In this jaded 21st century world they can still make feel-good movies. ‘Hidden Figures‘ doesn’t break any new grounds in story, doesn’t push the drama beyond limits, and probably won’t garner lots of awards. –Check that. It received three(!) Oscar nominations, including Best Picture!– We still need films like these to celebrate the best of us and the best within us.