Just why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to only nominate Hidden Figures for three Oscars (Best Film, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) one can only speculate. For mine, it is one of the films of the year.
Hidden Figures is inspirational, poignant, infuriating, witty and warm, an ode to the space race and the tensions behind the scenes as the US vied for bragging rights with the Russians. The script is a real charmer, the key performances most memorable, the cinematography and settings evocative and the soundtrack is a beauty. Even the title is a stroke of genius and you will probably only be cognisant of why I say that at the end.
Hidden Figures uncovers the incredible, untold yet true story of a brilliant group of women who changed history for the better – by aiming for the stars (literally). The film recounts the vital history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA, who also sent the quest for equal rights and opportunity rocketing forward. Most will recall the Apollo missions and many can list the astronauts who took those first giant steps for humankind in space: John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong.
Yet, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station) and Mary Jackson’s (Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe in her first film role) are names not readily identifiable. That is, even though their daring, smarts and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to advances that allowed for manned space flight.
Margot Lee Shetterly wrote the book upon which the movie is based after conducting interviews, undertaking extensive research and looking at archival material. Her father worked at NASA. Co-screenwriter and director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) brings the women’s rise to the top ranks of aerospace in the thrilling early days of NASA to life. For all its joys and triumphs, Hidden Figures is also a film that takes place at the crossroads of the most defining struggles in American history. I am talking about the evolving fight for Civil Rights and the battle to win the high-stakes Cold War, without risking nuclear war and to be the first superpower to establish a human presence outside Earth. There is also the ongoing drive to show how the mind-boggling technological breakthroughs that create the world’s future have nothing to do with gender or background.
Melfi wanted to re-create a more optimistic period in America, when people aimed at breaking through barriers with a sense of belief. “At that time, there was a real sense of national pride surrounding the space race and President Kennedy appealed to everyone to push the envelope. He spoke to the innate urge in all of us to find out if there’s something more, something better,” says Melfi. Throughout, Melfi consulted closely with NASA and NASA historians. Although he didn’t set out to create a documentary, he did want the film’s fictionalised drama to reflect the spirit of the early space pioneers from all walks of life.
Clearly a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring each of the three pivotal characters is given a distinct, relatable, three-dimensional persona. These proud African-American women had to contend with so much more than their white male, or, indeed, white female counterparts to “make it”. The injustice, the prejudice and the racism was apparent at every turn and yet their dignity remained intact throughout. They are intelligent, sassy and dogmatic – qualities that come through loud and clear from the get go – as they navigate the complexities of an America that is living in the dark ages.
Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all excellent as the trio of protagonists, who aim high. Kevin Costner (Man of Steel) maintains a strong and enduring presence throughout Hidden Figures as the man front and centre in Mission Control and the film is all the better for it. It is an impressive showing, capturing Costner at his best or near enough to that. I also appreciated the supporting performances of Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Jim Parsons (TV’s The Big Bang Theory).
A very easy, if at times decidedly uncomfortable watch – the three principal characters set about ensuring that is the case – Hidden Figures tells a compelling story and pulls on the heartstrings. It leaves a deep and indelible impression and should be seen. Rated PG, it scores an 8½ out of 10.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali
Release Date: 16 February 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television