Hidden Figures tells an inspiring story about four women much of the world had probably previously never heard of, whose work and perseverance in the face of institutionalized racism and sexism broke astronomical barriers — literally!
It's just too bad the movie itself is rather bland and predictable, formulated to make you get angry at the right places, cheer at the right places, and not really question whether we've really come that far at all.
The story centers on three black friends and coworkers at the NASA field center at Langley in Virginia in the early 1960s. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician, but more specifically, a "computer;" Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a mathematician and supervisor of the "colored computers" division; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a computer and aspiring engineer.
The majority of their work consists of making advanced mathematical calculations for the early days of the NASA space program, when America was racing against Russia to make it into orbit, and eventually, to the moon. While all three women's stories are presented, the majority of the film centers on Katherine, who was a mathematical prodigy from an early age, and is placed on the Space Task Group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the division that will help calculate the figures needed to launch the first man into space.
She is the only African American on the team, as well as the only female computer, surrounded by a bunch of white men in short-sleeved button ups who at the least don't even notice she's there, and at the worst, are downright competitive and hostile. (Her main antagonist is played by Jim Parsons because of course.)
A major obstacle to her daily job centers on bathrooms, and the fact that the division she's working in has no "colored" bathrooms, forcing her to race a mile across the campus to the colored building every day just to be able to pee. Harrison eventually notices her frequent absences, and demands to know just where it is she disappears to every day. In a heated and tearful reply, Katherine explains, angrily exposing the ridiculousness of the situation. Soon after, Harrison is seen taking a sledgehammer to the Colored Bathroom signs, and declaring all bathrooms at the campus be integrated.
Both Katherine's speech and Harrison's sign destruction garnered applause from the audience, which illustrates a problem with both films like this (and how we're taught history, itself). The oppressed who stood up against their oppression deserve all the credit and applause in the world. But does a white man with nothing to lose really deserve applause for doing what is empirically right?
To the film's credit, none of the white people in it are overtly racist, but what they are has the same effect: They're complacent and convinced that segregation is just the way things are, and they should all just learn to live with it. At one point, Dorothy Vaughan's supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, tells her, "Despite what you think, I have nothing against you," to which Vaughan replies, "I'm sure you believe that." It's a statement that could certainly be said to a large portion of the voting public today.
All that said, the history of these women is inspiring, even if it didn't happen exactly as it did in the movie. The real Katherine Johnson has said in interviews she was never "aggressive," she just did her work, so it's questionable whether her confrontation over the bathrooms, among other moments where she stands her ground, ever happened. But watching a woman do her job for decades, sparking change by merely being excellent at her work, does not make for crowd pleasing cinema.
All of the actresses give fine performances, and have their Oscar-worthy scenes, perfect for "Your Consideration" submissions. I was surprised by what a natural actress Janelle Monáe is, something that was only hinted at in her small role in this year's Moonlight. Octavia Spencer plays headstrong but non-confrontational very well, as she has consistently in the past. And Taraji P. Henson is convincingly smart, even if she pushes her nerdy glasses up her nose one too many times. She also gets some choice scenes as a widow and single mother, as well as with a budding romance with a Lt. Colonel, played by Mahershala Ali.
There's nothing wrong with Hidden Figures, and uncomplicated movies like it. It's certainly doing good by shedding light on some figures who shouldn't remain hidden in history. It just has the unfortunate luck of coming out in a year full of constant reminders that while we may have come a long way, (baby), we have a lot further to go than we may have thought.
Hidden Figures is currently playing at the Metreon in San Francisco and opens wide on January 6th.