Review by J.T. Johnson
“Hidden Figures” is a wonderful period piece that tells a story that needs to be told while also using it as a framework to talk about the turbulent times during the Civil Rights Movement. The story is about three African-American women who helped change the course of the space race even though they would not get the attention they deserved until decades later. While the movie follows the three women in particular, it primarily tells the story of Katherine Johnson, played by the exceptional Taraji P. Henson.
Katherine is a mathematics genius but she is also an African-American woman working in a very segregated NASA. The African-American “computers” work in the West Area Computing Unit and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is their unrecognized supervisor. The third woman is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), someone who is eventually assigned to assist the engineers as they design the Mercury capsule that will carry the first American into space.
Katherine is eventually assigned to Langley’s Flight Research Division, under the supervision of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the no-nonsense director of the Space Task Group. Eventually, Al realizes just how much of a genius she is and gives her more clearance to do more assignments. While this is not suitable to the rest of the engineers, personified by the fictional head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), she finally gets to work on sending a man to space.
Dorothy, on the other hand, is trying to learn the new IBM computers that NASA is preparing. Knowing that the IBM computers could replace her team, she sets out to learn how to program in order to save their jobs and adapt to the new system. Mary is on her quest to become NASA’s first African-American engineer.
The great thing about this movie’s story is that it actually feels like a true drama and a genuine commentary on the Civil Rights Movement using this remarkably true story. Some movies (some, not all) that attempt this usually get up on a soap box and there is usually some white person that needs to be beaten by the end of the movie. I get what they are trying to do, but that feels fake and doesn’t really teach us anything.
This movie does it right by showing how these extraordinary women changed the system from within and changed the minds of the white people who worked around them. It shows that in order to affect change, you have to change minds and hearts and that this is possible. You don’t necessarily need a massive white villain, you just need to show real humans who have to change their old ways of thinking.
The movie’s ultimately positive message is just what we all need right now in this world. In addition to its commentary about the Civil Rights Movement, it also provides three much needed role models for little girls out there and tells them that they can do whatever they want despite what the world thinks of them. Yes, it is sad that we still need that reminder in today’s world, but with more films such as this, maybe they won’t always need more reminders in the future.
In addition to its stellar story, the performances are all top-notch. Henson gives what I think is an Oscar worthy performance as Katherine. She captures the shy genius who somehow manages to speak her mind. There is one truly powerful scene where Al berates Katherine for being gone for forty minutes. She finally breaks down, revealing that she has to go a quarter a mile just to use the bathroom. This scene had me in tears and was worth the price of admission all by itself.
While Henson is definitely the breakout star of the movie, that definitely does not take away from Spencer or Monáe. They are equally up to the task even if their stories are not given as much screen time as Henson’s. Then there are three great performances from Costner, Parsons, and even Kirsten Dunst, playing a character that holds back Dorothy from advancement within NASA.
I could go on and on about this movie. It was a great start to the films I plan to review for 2017. The story is fantastic with great drama, humor, and a genuine emotional core. The performances are also spectacular all around and it’s just a damn good movie anyone can enjoy.