***1/2 out of ****
(for thematic elements and some language)
Released: December 25, 2016 limited; January 6, 2017 wide
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taragi P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parson, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell
Ranked #13 (Honorable Mention) on My Top 10 List For 2016, and 2016 Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), and Best Adapted Screenplay
Equal parts civil rights drama, suffragette fight, and space race nail-biter, Hidden Figures is a gift on multiple levels.
It tackles a trifecta of historical turning points without shortchanging any of them, and handles each better than similar films of recent memory that have tried to focus on just one of the three. It also layers in the personal lives of the three leads to emotionally rewarding results. Hidden Figures wears its history on its sleeve just as much as its heart.
The most pleasant surprise of this formulaic dramatization is how sincere it is, told with a veracious spirit. Initially it appears as if it might be antiquated, even schlocky, or that the 1990s might call wanting their Oscar bait back. But instead, writer / director Theodore Melfi and his superb cast walk that line of tonal accessibility with confidence. Then they transcend that line to provoke legitimate, hard-earned, applause-worthy inspiration that engages your mind along with your morals, and caps it all off by putting a lump in your throat.
In the 1960s, the United States saw some of the biggest tests to its national character. We failed many of them, tragically. But we also rose to some of the most vital. Hidden Figures reminds us of these achievements while also focusing on new ones, and they’ll always rank among our country’s greatest whether we ever learned about them in a history book or not.
Previous films to highlight this era have often, and rightly, depicted segregation through brutal, graphic portrayals of racial injustice. Most of these movies are inaccessible to kids, and so an appropriate introduction to these realities remains all-the-more necessary. Hidden Figures is that movie, a safe, PG-rated crowd-pleaser that doesn’t compromise smart story (and truth) telling in order to broaden its audience appeal. It’s the kind of movie every history teacher would be excited to show their students – from grade school through high school – and that kids would actually engage, think about, and be changed by. It has the power to give all kids (and minorities especially) a vision for life.
Cleverly titled for its dual meaning, Hidden Figures tells the inexplicably unknown true story of three African-American women (and their female colleagues) who played a vital role in computing the elusive and complex flight trajectory for John Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 mission. That flight marked the first time a U.S. astronaut would orbit the earth. Led by Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), this intelligent trio of minority mathematicians and engineers would be marginalized for only so long before mission leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who seems to embody the virtues of 20th Century Americana) could deny their needed contributions no longer.
To note the film’s timeliness is a bit of an understatement, particularly with the recent passing of Glenn. After a year-plus of heightened racial divisions that have polarized citizens both politically and socially, Hidden Figures acts like a unifying balm as it reveals how African-Americans played such an integral part in a chapter that Made America Great.
The fact that it involves African-American women instead of men only magnifies the prejudiced dynamic. As the film makes a point of clarifying, this occurred at a time when Jewish survivors from Nazi Germany could immigrate to and succeed in a country that born-and-raised black Americans could not, and women of all races were seen as capable of little more than secretarial assistance.
In a frank manner, director Theodore Melfi depicts how negroes were considered “less than”, not just by Jim Crow racists but also the matter-of-fact dismissals by whites who would consider themselves educated, enlightened, even progressive. This “soft” bigotry reveals itself not by Caucasians taking offense with African-Americans expressing themselves. Whites are simply, but contemptuously, annoyed.
Miraculously, Melfi applies a consistent entertaining tone without watering down necessary gravitas. Indeed, his approach actually amplifies respect for this obscure historical landmark achieved by and for African-Americans (and women). Nuance isn’t necessarily one of Melfi’s virtues, but crucial moments are mostly rendered with a quite, resolute strength (or, on occasion, through well-metered humor) rather than confrontational melodramatics.
Melfi crafts an augmented, semi-theatrical version of reality, amping up tone on occasion for both comedic and thematic emphasis, but he never undercuts the import. Sure, his film plays up victories along the way, but it should. They deserve to be, and we need to feel them.
At NASA, scientific brainstorming sessions are fascinating, especially as we see Katherine contribute to and/or crack the deadlock of unsolvable equations. These scenes will inspire kids to those fields, and their possibilities. Home life is also explored, and one surprise shared moment in particular between single-mother Katherine and her three daughters is among the most heartwarming (and tear-jerking) of recent memory. Personal wins are as valued here as professional ones, and they include the open practice of genuine Christian faith.
There is a sincerity from the cast that authenticates the film’s surface feel-good strokes and occasional cliched script beats. Henson plays up Katherine’s geeky mannerisms a bit too much at times (though much of that could be from Melfi’s direction), but on the whole she shines in her biggest leading theatrical role to date, made more impressive by how much it directly contrasts the sassy pyrotechnics of her popular turn as Cookie Lyon on TV’s Empire.
Octavia Spencer provides the understated authority you’d expect from an Oscar-winner, and singer Janelle Monáe continues to build an impressive film resume (especially following her turn in this year’s Moonlight; her co-star there – Mahershala Ali – also appears in a key featured role). Monáe displays a crossover prowess reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez from twenty years ago. Costner’s stoic idealism is a perfect fit for this era and material, while Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst help round out a solid, impressive ensemble.
Hidden Figures is the absolute best version of exactly what you’re expecting. It’s a Hollywood take on history, but it’s Hollywood and history at their best. We need stories like this told. Their impact on our nation is best served when they’re told like this, in a way that can be shared and appreciated by everyone.