HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)
Like in the scenes that show mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) having to walk, and sometimes run, a half mile across the campus of Virginia’s Langley Research Center, to the “colored” ladies room several times a day during her long shifts.
But, as folks who know history will attest, this was the era of “separate but equal” segregation, and their framing of Ms. Johnson’s predicament is apt as it symbolizes how rough it was for many African Americans in the workplace.
There are other times when it seems that director/writer Theodore Melfi’s (ST. VINCENT) movie takes some liberties with some major moments as when astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell, portrayed as much as a dreamboat as possible) tells the team of engineers that he’ll be “good to go” on the launch of the rocket that officially put a man in space for the first time if they “get the girl to check the numbers” – referring to the aforementioned Ms. Johnson.
But according to transcripts of the event, that actually happened, and this film portrays it perfectly. There’s just no way around that being a feel-good, empowering moment in which we see how important the contributions of black women like Johnson, and her colleagues - Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – were to NASA, back when the space program mattered the most.
That would be the ‘60s, when the U.S. was in a space race with Russia to being the first to put a man on the moon. The story focuses most on Henson’s Johnson as she adjusts to being assigned to the Space Task Group headed by group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Costner’s Harrison is a stern by-the-book boss who doesn’t appears to have a racist bone in his body, but Johnson’s co-workers, especially NASA engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) all give her disgusted looks (it should be noted that Stafford didn’t exist; he’s an amalgam).
Things get worse when Johnson finds that her all-white office mates have labeled a small empty coffee pot “colored” for her.
Henson’s Johnson also gets a love interest in the form of Mahershala Ali, who’s really been making a name for himself lately in such worthy projects as Luke Cage and MOONLIGHT. Here Ali, as a smooth-talking military man, gets to join the movie’s male contingent in having to learn that the times are indeed a-changin,’ and they should never underestimate any woman’s abilities.
Meanwhile, Spencer’s overworked Vaughan, told repeatedly by her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) that she won’t be getting a promotion, learns the programming language needed to program the new IBM computer which leads to her being made NASA’s first black supervisor.
The third lead, Mary Jackson as played by musician/model Monáe in her first starring role in a major motion picture, may not get the lion’s share of screen-time, but makes the sassy best of her storyline involving sweet talking a judge into letting her take classes at an all-white school so that she can get a degree in Engineering and become NASA’s first black female engineer.
Many critics have called HIDDEN FIGURES: “THE HELP meets THE RIGHT STUFF,” and, yeah, that’s valid. There is certainly a lot of cheesy, made-for-TV-style packaging surrounding this unapologetically inspirational history lesson, but at no times does that diminish the film’s earnest tone and heartfelt spirit.
Henson, best known as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, owns her role as the central protagonist as she holds her own with Costner, who’s right at home here as he’s been in a bunch of movies set during this era, and Parsons, whose character is like a racist Sheldon Cooper without any snarky one-liners.
Spencer gets the film’s maybe funniest and most on point moment in a bathroom scene where has a supremely cutting comeback to Dunst as her superior. I won’t spoil it, but will say it really riled up the audience at the advance screening I attended.
It’s a big cornball crowd-pleaser for sure, but HIDDEN FIGURES earns its place as a piece of primo entertainment with an important message. That being, if, as a people, we can overcome assholish, bigoted oppression, we can reach the stars.