Ever since The Help won a bunch of Oscars a few years ago there has been a backlash against the sanitized depictions of racism in Hollywood movies. That's understandable; racism shouldn't ever be glossed over and it should make the audience uncomfortable to witness it. That said, a movie like Hidden Figures, a sweet, somewhat trite charmer about three under-appreciated women in the realms of space exploration and civil rights, tells such an important story that as many people as possible should see it. How's the saying go? "You attract more flies with honey..."?
Hidden Figures celebrates the story of three African-American mathematicians; Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, also of The Help) and Mary Jackson (soul singer Janelle Monae), who were instrumental in NASA's space exploration activities during the Cold War. It's a story almost nobody had ever heard of, including writer/director Ted Melfi (of the equally saccharine St. Vincent), until Margot Lee Shetterley's eye-opening novel. Set at a time when the Russians were kicking our butt in the space race, and the civil rights movement was just gaining traction, the film occupies an interesting space for African-Americans. On the one hand, how practical is it to look towards the stars when there's oppression taking place right here at home? That idea is driven home early on when all three ladies have a car breakdown while on the drive to work at Langley, and they are approached by a white cop with an attitude. Of course he's suspicious at these three black women claiming to work for NASA, but they eventually turn the tables on him and end up with a police escort to work. It's the entire movie in a microcosm, while also subtly making the point that the tension between blacks and police hasn't changed much in fifty years.
The trio faces discrimination on multiple fronts. Being a woman is enough of a roadblock to any advancement in NASA's all-boys club, but being a black woman makes it nearly impossible. Melfi draws out his characters in broad strokes, both the heroes we'll be championing and those who stand opposed. Johnson is quiet; a gifted intellectual known as "The Computer", and a single mother trying to make things meet. It's a change of pace role for Henson, especially if you're used to seeing her moxie on Empire every week. Vaughn is the tough one and a natural leader vying for a supervisor position she's more than qualified for. And Jackson has an eye on becoming an engineer, something no woman at NASA had ever done before.
These women were the brains behind the launch that sent the late John Glenn (played by a constantly smirking Glenn Powell) into orbit, but because of their skin color those accomplishments remained in shadow. The film is about how they came to change hearts and minds within NASA by displaying their worth on a regular basis, even when it made others around them uncomfortable. The centerpiece character is Johnson, who ends up working alongside the Space Task Force's chief, Al Harris (Kevin Costner), a gruff, no-b.s. kind of guy who only cares about the work and beating those Russkies. We expect he'll be one of the main antagonists but instead that role falls to Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, who shade their characters with enough grey to keep them from becoming total caricatures.
Melfi is a seasoned vet at exactly this kind of material; lightweight but with a strong, endearing message that audiences can't help but respond to. So you aren't going to find anything too ugly here; other than dirty looks and condescending comments hurled at the women. The most unfair example of their segregation is mostly played for laughs as Johnson must run miles to the nearest "Blacks Only" restroom, Pharrell's distracting '60s track "Runnin'" playing in the background. This does eventually give way to the film's centerpiece emotional breakthrough when Johnson is questioned about her long breaks, a powerful moment that will almost certainly air when Henson is nominated for Best Actress. Spencer is of course terrific; I think we've reached the point where she can always be counted on to give an excellent, down-to-earth performance. But the standout has to be Monae, who along with her unforgettable turn in Moonlight is having the kind of year any actor would kill for. Her Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali also has a solid role as a military man who comes around to realizing what an amazing woman Johnson is. While it's not his movie, Costner shouldn't be overlooked just because the brusque character he's playing is kind of what we expect from him. Costner's just so good at it that he fits in with the film's lighter tone seamlessly.
Ironically for a movie about a bunch of math nerds, Hidden Figures simplifies the solutions for these pioneering women. However, it's also a movie that pays worthy tribute to their brilliance and determination in the face of overwhelming social odds, and does so in a way that engages emotionally. The film also reminds us there used to be a time when being an expert, being intellectual, was something to be rewarded for, not held up as a sign of elitism. The women of Hidden Figures overcame the prejudice in front of them by being the best, and that's a lesson that is always worth teaching.
Rating: 3 out of 5