Director: Theodore Melfi
Runtime: 127 minutes
It seems like a lifetime ago since the #oscarssowhite controversy. This year, in particular, has presented us with several films that break conventional boundaries in regards to race relations. Unlike Barry Jenkins’ artsy film Moonlight, Hidden Figures frames race struggles and feminine strength in the most Hollywood way possible; the underdogs sticking it to the man. Unfortunately, the use of many classic cinema tropes is what holds the film back from being a truly great, despite its noble intentions.
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African-American women and their struggles to thrive in the sixties, pre-moon landing NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius working as a human computer in NASA’s West Area Computing Unit along with her two carpool friends, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who manages the computing unit. The film sets the scene with the Americans losing the space race to the Russians. After a reshuffle of roles, each of the women is assigned a new role. Jackson is to report to the engineering team and Vaughn starts learning how to program the new IBM computer. Goble is assigned to the Space Task Group, NASA’s premier mathematical department run by director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). It is here that she encounters prejudice against both her sex and race. Goble has to go to a coloured bathroom half a mile away, use a separate coffee pot and not be credited for the work she completes for lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons playing a toned down Sheldon). Goble also faces bigotry from her new love interest, military officer Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who still has old fashioned views when it comes to women in society.
Being based on a true story, it is sobering to know how different it was for women in male-dominated industries. The film does an excellent job of highlighting the prejudice endured by these women for not only their race but their sex as well. This is especially evident when Goble attempts to attend a meeting regarding her work only to be told by Stafford that there is no protocol for women in the meetings. Taraji P. Henson shines in this film as a timid, fish out of water type who begins to find her own voice.
Hidden Figures is the second film by director Theodore Melfi, known for his debut St Vincent. Aesthetically, the director does a great job of capturing a time before computers and calculators when maths was still done on paper and blackboards. What brought this film down was its predictability and overuse of Hollywood convention. I would love to have seen a slightly grittier version that delved deeper into the prejudice of the time and struggles of the three main characters.
Nevertheless, it is heart-warming to see these well-established characters traverse the gigantic mountain in front of them and is a testament to the real hidden figures that triumphed against such great odds.