The story of Hidden Figures should have been told a long time ago if not for Hollywood’s bizarre insistence that films with people of colour as leads would not make money at the box office. Hidden Figures (directed by Theodore Melfi) has proven the industry wrong in that regard, soaring to number one at the US box office and making 21.8 million dollars in its opening weekend. It is quite a statement, and the poster itself tells the story: three black women – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae – not as maids, but as smart, capable scientists and engineers who are trying to put a man in space.
Hidden Figures (adapted from a non-fiction book by the same name) is the remarkable true story of three African-American women in the 1960s. Katherine Jackson (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who is responsible for calculating important mathematical data needed to help John Glenn orbit the earth. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) becomes NASA’s first black female engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octivia Spencer) is the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, teaching women of all colour how to use and program computers. All three women start out in the segregated West Area Computers division of the Langley Research Centre in Virginia, and as the film progresses, we see each of them use their wit, strength and sense of humour to thrive in a world which regards them as second-class citizens. We follow these women as they build their careers and their families, while making an extraordinary contribution to the history and the achievements of their country.
Undoubtedly, Hidden Figures’ greatest strength is the legacy and empowering stories of these three women. There is a poppy, bright 60s vibes to the piece which makes the film fun and the chemistry between the three leads is its secret weapon. Spencer provides the gravitas, Monae the fire, while Taraji P. Henson brings humour, grit and dramatic chops to her role as Katherine. While she is synonymous nowadays with Cookie in the show Empire, Hidden Figures reminds us again that there is more to Henson than Cookie. You can’t help but root for her. You love her, but you also want to be her. Alongside her two cast mates, she carries the film through its choppy transitions and predictable beats.
And this is where Hidden Figures falters. Although entertaining, the film grapples to make different aspects of the women’s lives flow seamlessly together as one story. An example is Katherine’s romance with her husband played by Mahershala Ali. It is always a pleasure to see Ali on screen (he is hitting it out of the park in both Moonlight and Marvel’s Luke Cage), but their scenes together feel abrupt and shoe-horned in. Furthermore, there is little subtlety to be found in this film. Every trope in a ‘feel good’ story is used here – from the sceptical but good-hearted white supervisor role (Kevin Costner) to Mary’s husband (Aldis Hodge) quoting civil rights slogans. While this approach works in some scenes (Henson delivers a chilling outburst explaining how she has to run to use the coloured bathroom off campus), it can come across as forced in certain moments. It is also a challenge to make something exciting and suspenseful out of an event we all know turned out to be successful. After all, there are so many ways in which one can put John Glenn’s life in danger.
Despite these flaws, however, Hidden Figures is still a roaring good time and the dynamic cast will get you through any bumps in the road. And when the credits roll, you might find yourself tearing up a little, for it is rare to see a film in which the story that’s being told is more important than how it is told.