Review: Hidden Figures

Rousing crowd-pleaser balances the political and the comic to excellent effect. A fitting tribute to three remarkable women.

This time of year brings out the big guns as hopeful movies jostle with each other in the awards season hustle, ultimately aiming at the box office gold of an Oscar statuette. While that brings us the emotional heft of masterpieces like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, it can also propel fluffier fare like Damien Chazelle’s La La Land to the fore.

Occasionally a film strikes a note somewhere between crowd-rousing accessibility and smart politics, and this year the standard bearer is writer/director Theodore Melfi’s joyous Hidden Figures.

Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterley’s non-fiction book alongside co-writer Alison Schroeder, Melfi’s gloriously feel-good fanfare celebrates the African-American women who helped drive NASA’s space race with Russia into the stars while facing down both racism and sexism at ground control.

Secreted away in a “coloured computers” wing across the parking lot from the main hub, Taraji P. Henson is particularly excellent as single mother Katherine Goble (soon-to-be Johnson), whose analytical mind and gift for seeing between the lines, signalled in an admittedly too cloying, sepia-hued prologue, finds herself summoned to NASA’s cutting edge, calculating the numbers for the Atlas rocket trials.

While the always affable Kevin Costner’s department boss Al Harrison has little time for anything other than results, Goble faces sneering micro-aggressions from engineer and direct report Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). The casual cruelties of a separate coffee pot are compounded by the fact that Goble must scurry across the compound to her old office, the only place that has a “coloured bathroom,” in a recalibration of the term toilet humour, and then face criticism for her extended absences.

Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan essentially runs the coloured computing department, which in this case means a room full of African-American women who check all the program’s calculations. Not, as we now known them, the processing machines that arrives later in the piece in the form of a hulking, room-sized IBM, the herald of possible human obsolescence. Her managerial role in practice isn’t recognised by Kirsten Dunst’s condescending supervisor who thinks nothing of announcing, “Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all.”

Also excellent in a smaller role in Moonlight, Janelle Monáe’s would-be engineer Mary Jackson is similarly held back, but this time because racial segregation in 60s America prevents her from completing the required physic courses at an all-white school. Her Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali pops up as a possible suitor for Goble, once again proving his quiet brilliance in conveying love.

Adeptly harnessing audience anger at these many slights, Hidden Figures soars on the back of all three women’s steely determination to succeed in spite of every humiliating hurdle. The weight of history hangs heavy over this triumphant movie, rightfully celebrating their momentous achievements, and if Melfi’s structure is a little simplistic, then all-the-better for reaching as many people as possible, educating them on a remarkable legacy that has been obscured for far too long. Given the nature of race relations and feminist progress in America right now, it seems timelier than ever before. What was won can be lost if we are not vigilant.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords