Filmmaking, perhaps more than any other art form, is a collaborative effort, and all the elements must cooperate in order to produce a satisfying whole. Often at the end of a film, I’m left with feelings of, “That movie would’ve been so good if…” or “That movie was great except for…”
I’m happy to report that I had no such conjunction-ending sentiments after seeing Hidden Figures. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) achieves the perfect combination of humor and sincerity, and the end result is a film that is teeming with energy, tonally on point, and relevant without ever becoming heavy-handed.
Hidden Figures tells the story of three women—Katherine Goble/Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)—each of whom worked at NASA in the 1960’s during the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When I first heard the premise of the movie, I was surprised—surprised that there were women working in science at this time, not just as secretaries but as engineers and mathematicians, and surprised that there were women of color working at a federal organization in the days of segregation. And this surprise is exactly why we need movies like this, because we haven’t heard this story, and that’s a travesty, both ethically and historically.
The film opens with the three women, in heels and professional attire, standing around their car which has broken down on the drive to work. Damsels in distress they are not, because Dorothy is more than capable of diagnosing the problem. So when a white police officer stops to “see what the issue is,” he’s viewed as more of a hassle than a help. He barely avoids putting his foot in his mouth when he says, after learning their professions, “I had no idea they hired Neg—“ only to be interrupted by Mary saying, “That they hired quite a few women? To work in the space program?” The scene immediately establishes where these women are located, politically and socially.
Though all three women work in the “Colored Computing” room at the Langley Research Center, they each have a different skill set. Mary is occasionally called upon for structural observations, and (after being encouraged by her Jewish-Polish supervisor, another outsider), decides to enroll in the additional classes needed to become an aerospace engineer. But first, she must formally petition a judge in order to be allowed to take night classes at an all-white high school.
Dorothy, out of necessity, works as a supervisor to the women, helping them with assignments, acting as their advocate, and ensuring that operations are smooth and organized. When the new IBM computer arrives, Dorothy sees it as both a threat and an opportunity. This is the machine that could put her and “her girls” out of jobs, but not if they’re the first to figure it out. She takes it upon herself to learn how to program it, and then teaches the rest of the women in secret. When the kinks have been worked out and the IBM requires “manpower” to keep it running, Dorothy is ready with a room full of womanpower.
And finally, there’s Katherine, a brilliant mathematician who’s first called upon to assist an all-male flight research division, due to her unique mastery of analytical geometry. As part of this research team, she deals with endless humiliation, from being forced to walk half a mile to use the “colored” restrooms, to having her colleagues make her drink from a separate coffee pot, to being denied the right to list herself as an author on reports. But despite all of this, Katherine perseveres, and not only demands permission to attend briefings (which no woman had done before), but becomes so essential that astronaut John Glenn himself refuses to go into space unless Katherine is the one who completes the calculations.
This might all sound like technical and perhaps not particularly cinematic stuff, but the film’s strength is that it renders these women’s stories with a style and urgency that maintains momentum from start to finish. I had so much fun while watching this movie, and that’s primarily because of the leading actresses. Ms. Monae delivers her lines with a seemingly polite frankness that barely masks the feelings of injustice boiling just beneath her surface. Ms. Spencer has mastered The Look, which can silence a room or confront a bigot with as much efficiency as most people’s full sentences. And Ms. Henson portrays a multi-dimensional character, one who can be a mother, friend, engineer, intellectual, pioneer, and wife, and portrays Katherine as a compelling mix of humility, strength, mischief, courage, and compassion. These three leads are backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Mahershala Ali (seen earlier this year in Moonlight) as Katherine’s love interest, Kevin Costner as her over-worked, no bullshit boss, and Kirsten Dunst as an uppity and exacting supervisor. However, their perspectives and backstories are wisely left off-screen, for this story belongs to Mary, Dorothy, and Katherine.
Hidden Figures succeeds in more than just good storytelling. The film is a delight to look at, largely due to unique styles and colors of the period-clothing, which serve a purpose greater than just historical accuracy. At Langley, the men are all dressed in black and white—black pants, white shirt, dark tie. But the women—particularly the women of color—are dressed in various bright hues, which is a clever way of visually drawing attention to the segregation and disparity between race and gender, without repeatedly referring to it. And the fleeting glimpses of protests on the corners, or the overheard news of a school bus-shooting on the radio (presented without in-film comment), demonstrates both how destructive and how normalized racism was in this time-period. Top this off with an original score that’s a collaboration between singer/songwriter/rapper Pharrell Williams and composer Hans Zimmer, and you get a film that succeeds on both technical and narrative levels.
Whether you go to the movies for entertainment or substance, you’ll leave Hidden Figures satisfied, because this is the rare film delights even as it informs.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.