Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three remarkable African-American women who helped NASA, and America, put their first man into space in 1961. The fact they were black and female in an era of huge change and racial tensions makes their real-life achievements even more incredible. Thankfully the film isn’t some throwaway celebration of their talents though; it’s a deeply thoughtful, honest and naturally humorous portrayal of their journey to a rightful place at the top.
Although Hidden Figures centres on the lives of all three ladies, their main focus chronicles the life of the gifted mathematician Katherine Johnson, played superbly by Taraji P. Henson. It’s not overstated, or untrue, to say her role in the space race was nothing less than critical to its eventual success. Without Johnson, they may have never made it to the moon, let alone get John Glenn’s (the astronaut played here by Glen Powell) ‘Friendship Mission 7’ up there in the first place. The film offers us insight into the walls she had to knock down, alongside a look into her utter genius (and stubbornness) to eventually help make a moment in history. Henson plays the role subtly and with grace, bringing forth both her passion for the math she loves and the truth of her reality to the characters around her. Even though people still were divided, she’s very aware this is her time now and she’s out there to prove she’s strong enough to do an effective job.
Her two friends, and colleagues, were also vital in their individual departments and roles. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a supervisor (well, she’s fighting to be one) managing the human computers in the basement who were segregated because they were black. She had to fight oppression within NASA and eventually show her worth by sheer determination and that latter word is very relevant to each individual story. Mary Jackson is played with belief and desire by Janelle Monáe, her character wants to be a qualified NASA Engineer, and she’s more than on her way to being qualified, but on that journey has to fight to change the law and people’s minds.
Kevin Costner portrays Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group. His role is to eventually bring Johnson into his close circle and he quickly realises she’s what they need for success. He also plays a very important role in confronting racism within the workplace. A number of scenes build us up to a scenario where he takes a physical approach to ‘breaking down’ barriers and it’s definitely the first time I’ve shed a tear at someone pulling down a toilet sign, but it’s also an important turning point.
In co-starring roles, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst take on important parts of people struggling to accept the ladies obvious genius, with Katherine and Dorothy respectively, but they very slowly begin to realise their own prejudice isn’t weighed down in anything logical and try to change. Man of the moment Mahershala Ali plays a military love interest for Mary, he’s flawless as usual and gives gravitas to a smaller role.
Overall, director Theodore Melfi brings forth the era successfully under a beautifully filmed soft palette that allows the three women to shine outside of the somewhat bland, grey nature of NASA. In fact, Johnson’s dress sense shows her individuality and makes her stand out in Math-related moments that could easily be un-exciting but instead are offered up with intrigue and understanding.
In troubling times, Hidden Figures is an important reminder of the unquestionable and unwavering right to acceptance whoever you are, whatever colour or creed. It’s also an essential and tremendous celebration of these three vital women who are represented with every ounce of the respect they’re due, and quite right to.
Hidden Figures is out on Friday 17 February across the UK. Book now at your local Picturehouse, our independent cinema of choice.