By John Black
Some movies can make you feel ashamed. Some of them do it bluntly, hammering their agenda at you with little regard to the entertainment value of the product they are trying to attack you with. Agree with us, the movie shouts, or leave.
Others try to persuade audiences in a gentler way, some going as far as to present both sides of the argument in a balanced way so that you are fully informed of the situation and can make an intelligent decision about it and how it affects you as you leave the theater.
And then along comes a movie like Hidden Figures, the story of three African America woman who broke down the walls of 1960’s racism and sexism with only the power of their minds and the strength of their beliefs in themselves. Although there is certainly a lot to learn from watching the movie, you never get the sense that director Ted Melfi is trying to beat you up — or overtly persuade you — with the movie’s message. Instead, he and his marvelous cast, working from a script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder from the best-selling book by Margot Lee Shetterly, have created a cinematic celebration of these incredible women that leaves you cheering with them when the lights come up, and for a long, long time after you’ve left the theater. The only shame you feel is at your own ignorance for not already knowing about these women and their historic achievements.
So, what’s the film about?
Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and the scientifically (not to mention culturally) groundbreaking work they did to make sure astronaut John Glenn not only launched safely into orbit, but made it back to earth alive. The actual circumstances that brought them to NASA were a bit serendipitous – NASA was so desperate to get mathematicians on board to work on the project they would take anybody – even three Black women – if they could help in any way. It is what these women did once they got their foot in the door that matters, and they way that they did it – letting their hard work and professionalism speak for them – that stirs your soul as you watch their story unfold.
Melfi does a great job of pacing the movie so that we not only see these women at NASA, but are invited into their lives outside the office in a way that fleshes out the characters in very interesting and compelling ways. Watching Katherine Johnson being courted by the handsome Airforce officer, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), for example, is as sweet and funny as any other believable relationship you will find in any movie, no matter what the color of the characters’ skin.
The film stumbles a bit when it comes to weaving White people into the story, falling back on some cardboard characters (and cardboard performances) to quickly telegraph their role in the women’s professional life. Kirsten Dunst plays the bitchy, vaguely racist person in charge of all the women hired by NASA, Jim Parsons is the far from vague racist/sexist scientists who challenges the women’s work at every stage of the program and Kevin Costner shows up as the head of the project who is ‘color-blind’ to the women so long as at the end of the day their math checks out. They are all memorable, but more for the way the women overcome the roadblocks these clichés throw in their way than for the characters themselves.
As for the characters these three extremely talented actresses create in Hidden Agenda…well, unforgettable barely seems to even begin to explain. Each is such a strong presence on the screen that in less talented hands they could have very easily dominated the story in a distracting way. Each of these women, however, is too talented to let that happen, particularly in the scenes when all three share the screen. Like all great actors, they know they are there at the service of the story, and Henson, Spencer and Monáe give a master class in how it should be done.
Hidden Figures opens nationwide on Jan. 6.