Hidden Figures tells the true story of three black women who fought through overwhelming racial and sexual prejudice to become instrumental in putting an American man into space. Set during the Cold War, the USA is falling behind in the space race against the Soviet Union, and when NASA’s mathematicians are unable to solve the problem of putting a man into space, they start looking for talent in the “coloured” computing division. The film follows Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who are three incredibly intelligent and determined woman who previously have been unable to move upward in NASA due to their skin colour and gender, but are given the opportunity to work in the mathematics, programming and engineering sectors respectively. Despite excelling in their fields, these women are met with constant discrimination, but remain steadfast and determined to prove their worth. This is a very uplifting and inspirational film about equality and fighting for the rights that we take for granted. It is set in a tragically backwards time of frustratingly terrible inequality, but is primarily a film about hope, freedom and success against all odds. This film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, with supporting roles from Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, and is directed by Theodore Melfi.
As I said in my introduction, this is primarily a positive, uplifting film. It accurately portrays the prejudice of the early 60s, but it doesn’t feel overly depressing. Obviously when something racist or sexist happens it is infuriating and you want to scream at these backwards people for acting the way they do, but the three women handle these situations in very satisfying, inspirational (and sometimes even funny) ways, and so the anger is replaced by an overall feeling of joy that society is no longer the way it used to be because of the actions of these women and many others like them. The performances of Henson, Spencer and Monáe really sold these characters. Monáe, who plays Mary Jackson, portrayed her as an independent and strong woman. She always speaks her mind and likes to have a good time. She is outwardly defiant and pushes for what she wants, but is still likeable and a lot of fun. Spencer was perhaps my favourite of the three as Dorothy Vaughan. She brought a lot of the comedy to the film, but also showed strong leadership. She tries to stay ahead of the game no matter what and is always trying to make things better for herself, but not in a rebellious way like Mary Jackson. The film devotes the most time to Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson. She is incredibly intelligent but shyer than the other two to begin with. You see her grow in confidence as she proves her talent to the workers at NASA despite the fact that they don’t take her seriously, or worse, outwardly dislike that she is there. You also get to see her as a Mother of three children, and there is a romantic subplot throughout the film about her growing relationship with an army Colonel, who is played by Mahersala Ali. All three of these performances are outstanding and you come to really respect these people, but the film goes a step further than that and actually shows you who these women are outside of their work and the discrimination they face. You get to see the as friends and family, drinking and partying and joking with each other. I love that the film takes the time out to show you them as real people because it makes them so much more relatable and likeable as characters than if you only saw them doing complicated maths that most people (me included) don’t understand. The fact that you like these people actually makes the complicated stuff they’re doing more interesting and engaging. I think director Theodore Meli handled both the complicated science and the racial discrimination of the time really well. He stays true to the maths, but manages to still make it engaging despite the fact that it’s very complicated and went way over my head. I understood what the maths and science meant for the plot and characters even though I didn’t understand the maths itself, which was perfect. He also makes the racism in the film mostly subtle. People don’t violently insult or attack the characters, but instead are passively aggressive and racist towards them. You see it in their looks and how they speak to them, which is incredibly effective and building up the frustration and anger, and when our characters do eventually snap and speak their minds you want to scream along with them because you understand how it must feel.
Hidden figures is a very effective film because of how much you relate to the characters and how well the attitudes of the time were handled. I left with a smile on my face because the film made me feel like I was alongside these women through their struggles and in their triumph. I think this is a must-see film because it is a story that should be known, but also because it is a brilliant film with fantastic acting. It could have easily been another historical drama that makes you feel depressed about how the world used to be, and while it is infuriating to see how things were, this film aims to highlight how things can and do change for the better when people are determined to make that change.
P.S. I had to do this review twice, because word crashed just as I finished it and I lost half my work and had to start again. I think this second draft is actually better though so maybe it was for the best. I also want to point out that Jim Parson’s is pretty much just playing Sheldon Cooper in this film, it’s not bad or anything it’s just what I expected.