Director Theodore Melfi delivers a tale of three remarkable women in Hidden Figures. However, while the film is based on true events, is it an accurate portrayal of real life?
Set in 1961, the story focuses on Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a brilliant mathematician working for NASA as a numbers cruncher – at this time human brain power was used to process data, but the computer’s time was nigh. Her friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) also work at NASA. Dorothy is a supervisor minus the title and the pay, while Mary longs to be an engineer. As the time approaches for the Mercury Seven missions, Katherine is moved to the Space Task Group to help invent math that doesn’t exist yet. The department is made up entirely of white men, so as far as her co-workers are concerned, as an African-American woman, Katherine has two strikes against her. The department is headed up by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Everywhere the ladies turn, they are faced with obstacles and prejudice based on either their race or gender, all of it preventing them from getting ahead. Combine that with segregation – at this time, NASA’s headquarters was in Langley, VA – and an almost impossible situation is created for these strong women. You know how the space missions ended up, but what does that mean for our three protagonists? Can they rise up against the tide and forge a path to the future or will they be swallowed by the currents of the sixties?
Hidden Figures tells a very interesting story about some ladies you may not be familiar with, but should be. I thought the tale of their overcoming the maddening restraints of the day was both touching and inspiring. However, Melfi’s film feels very safe in its depiction of the hardships these women faced. Everything feels very sanitized and watered down in order to make the film more family-friendly. There were also a few unbelievable moments in the film that felt a little easy. The one that sticks out most firmly in my mind comes when Dorothy is attempting to learn how to use the new IBM computer NASA has purchased – remember, at this time, a single computer took up an entire room. She goes to learn afterhours, with the intention of training her staff so that they’ll remain employed when the machine renders them obsolete. It’s a great and kind move for her to make, but the unbelievable part was that Dorothy was able to simply walk into the office housing the computer – an office full of interior windows, mind you – and no one pays her any mind until the script calls for it. It was a little unrealistic considering the clearances everyone at NASA had to get in order to simply change departments. It was one of those story aspects that felt too easy. Nonetheless, moments like this are balanced out by the great character work for our three heroines. At times, it feels like the film is trying to do too much and that this story might have been better suited for a TV miniseries in order to cover all the bases.
The cast does a fantastic job with the three leads doing most of the heavy lifting. Henson and Spencer are great as always – proving that we need far more solid roles for both women and actors of color – but I was really impressed with Monáe. I had seen her previously in Moonlight, but her role here is much larger and gives her more of an opportunity to shine. Costner does well as the stern, but ultimately soft-hearted Harrison, while Jim Parsons does a good job as Katherine’s nemesis/supervisor. Kirsten Dunst is also great as Dorothy’s obliviously racist supervisor. Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge are also good in their supporting roles, but their involvement just added to my feeling that there was definitely more story to mine here that might have been better told in a longer format.
Overall, Hidden Figures is a good, but very safe film. The performances are great and it tells a necessary story, but the pursuit of a family-friendly rating may have dulled the film’s edges.