All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox
There hasn’t been a standout film based on a true story about the space program that have been noteworthy as of late. Audiences have been treated to sci-fi, NASA adjacent fare like The Martian, Gravity, and the outer space mind meld known as Interstellar. Not since Apollo 13 have we been immersed into Hollywood’s version of launching a rocket into space. HIDDEN FIGURES is cut from the same cloth as Apollo 13 in terms of the iconic space race era but instead of focusing on the astronauts that were blasted into the atmosphere, they hone in on the brilliant minds responsible for one of NASA’s most historic launches. In this case, it was a trio of women — black women, at that. The film tells the historic untold story that reaches peak black girl magic long before the term “black girl magic” was coined.
Directed by Theodore Melfi and adapted by Allison Schroeder and Melfi from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the story follows the portrayal of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three extraordinairy women whose faces have been put in the background or not mentioned at all when it comes to the great Space Race that took place between the Soviet Union and America in the ’60s. The three were essentially the great minds behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit which became a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence. The mission captivated the world and turned the Space Race around. By doing so, the three women crossed professional, gender, and race lines, a difficult task to do in a white male dominated industry — especially in the ’60s.
Surprisingly and unsurprisingly, the ’60s-set film and its portrayal of women of color isn’t much different than what’s going on in 2016. In our current divisive social climate, women are being scrutinized and people of color are suffering from intolerance. That said, the timing of the release of Hidden Figures couldn’t be more perfect. The only difference is that now we have social media to make the news of injustice and oppression spread at a rapid rate.
However, the film isn’t necessarily a dense story about race and intolerance. Yes, it is integral to the journey of the characters, but Melfi doesn’t tell us what we don’t already know. It was the ’60s and people of color didn’t have it so well — that’s a given. He establishes this fact in the beginning by making us aware that, even though this he is a white male director, he knows of the era and knows how to apply it to a PG rating (a wise move on Fox’s part so that ambitious young girls can watch it). The movie balances the struggle of race and gender with grace and charm, giving the necessary Hollywood revisionist gloss it needs, but still maintaining the story’s inspirational core.
Yes, there are some moments of blatant racism, there needs to be because that’s history’s reality. However, it’s not thrown in your face with no rhyme or reason. Instead, it propels the story and mindfully builds an arc for both the black and white characters. There’s a constant tense exchange between Katherine and her condescending co-worker Paul (Jim Parsons) that results in satisfying justice in the end. For Dorothy, it’s her relationship with hiring manager Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) that defines casual racism at its best when Vivian tells her that she likes her kind to which Dorothy responds, “Keep telling yourself that.” A moment in the film that rings so true to today’s social climate. For Mary, she is encouraged to be an engineer by a co-worker and mentor. When she finds out about night classes at a local high school to get the training she needs, she learns that she is not allowed to attend because she is black.
Each story arc brilliantly explores the dynamics of three different relationships. For Katherine, she struggles with proving herself to the men at her job and, at the same time, she develops a personal relationship with a gentleman (Mahershala Ali), giving the traditional story of work-life balance. For Dorothy, we see her constantly at odds with Vivian, trying to prove herself as management material, thus giving us the seldom looked at differences of struggles between black and white women. Meanwhile, Mary has a struggle with “the system” as she fights to get the education she needs to be an engineer.
Henson, Spencer, and Monae deliver performances that are wildly inspirational, carrying the film’s message of resilience with confidence. They are the backbone, moral compass, and unbreakable foundation, with Henson as the spearhead of the story — particularly with specific stirring monologue that will blatantly serve as her “show me the money!” moment that will most likely be her scene submission for awards season.
There’s an overall motivation of female empowerment that keeps the film strong throughout. The fact that the story is told through the stories of three women of color raises the stakes and strengthens the storytelling. And the fact that it is an untold story that has never made its way to history books is a combination of bittersweet and uplifting.
The film itself is good, but the story of these three women is far greater and enlightening. There is no white savior. There isn’t a gratuitous moment of horrible racist mistreatment. It’s a feel-good story of hope and resilience that is appropriate for these times of uncertainty. Hidden Figures is an amazing story that needed to be told and can hopefully pave the way for more untold tales of phenomenal people of color.
Running time: 126 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer