It’s kind of insane that a true story this wonderful hasn’t been seen on the big screen before. In a time when the civil rights movement is about to explode, Hidden Figures tells the quiet stories of three black women working as computers at NASA. While the storytelling often feels cheesy and heavy handed, the women it portrays are so powerful and uplifting that even clunky directing can’t stop them from shining.
Our protagonist is Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a quiet genius in pencil skirts and cat eye glasses. Alongside her are her two friends and fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monea). The three women work at NASA in the still-segregated Langley, Virginia in 1961 as the space race between Russia and the United States is ever-intensifying. Each woman has her own ambitions. Katherine, as the smartest, ends up working on the main team of rocket scientists led by the gruff but fair Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Dorothy, exasperated that she does the work of a supervisor without the pay or title, faces off against her curt white supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) while Mary must fight tooth and nail in court only to receive permission to take engineering classes at the local segregated high school to become the first black woman engineer.
The film makes sure to clarify at the beginning that it is only based on true events, giving it license to craft a movie out of the basic facts. The actors all excel in their roles, from Jim Parson’s snide and haughty scientist to Mahershala Ali’s gentlemanly Colonel Jim Johnson. Our three leads are the true stars though. They all bring a quiet power to their roles, defiant against the restrictions placed on them. Instead of openly rallying against broad issues, they each use the system to their own advantages. Katherine uses her smarts and stubbornness to make sure her ideas are heard, Dorothy learns new skills to stay indispensable, and Mary uses the court system to her powers of persuasion to achieve her dream of becoming an engineer. Henson is a million lightyears away from over-the-top Cookie on Empire while Monae dazzles in one of her first acting gigs outside of music (her and Ali also star in this year's critical hit Moonlight).
As fun as the film is to watch, it’s held down by its clunky and ham fisted direction. The story of black women working at NASA is phenomenal as it is but Hidden Figures takes too many opportunities to drive its point home. The dialogue often veers towards cheesy and the sweeping music often feels like it’s trying to push emotions on the audience. For a film that seems to be angling for Oscar buzz, Hidden Figures could’ve done with more subtle filmmaking.
Still, cheesy as it is, the film is a fun and uplifting watch about a group of women who fought hard for equality and whose story has stayed in the shadows for far too long. We can only hope that the success of a film such as this will bring other untold stories to light.