Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African American female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Given the racism and sexism of the time, this was an achievement in itself, but these three woman really did smash the glass ceiling and played a pivotal role in how the space race developed.
Like the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Hidden Figures was another film with a predominately black cast to be nominated for several Academy Awards. Unlike Moonlight, it didn’t actually win anything, which is a bit of a surprise. Whereas Moonlight is uncompromisingly ‘arty’, downbeat and contemplative, Hidden Figures is far more of a feel-good audience pleaser. There are inspirational speeches from our trio of heroines, some heart-tugging moments and a decent soundtrack of ’60s soul classics.
However, it can be, at times, ever so slightly dull. There are only so many times you can watch complex mathematical equations being scribbled on a blackboard, and you’d have to be really into space and know about the global politics of the 1960s to be truly captivated by the story. The way racism is depicted though is very well done – the coffee pot with ‘coloureds’ scrawled on it, and the fact that Katherine had a 40 minute round trip to find a ‘couloured persons’ bathroom is shocking.
Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae (in her second Oscar-nominated film of the year, following Moonlight) are all engaging and magnetic performers, and Henson in particular has one of the best scenes of the film when she eventually loses her cool about the racial segregation she’s put through. Kevin Costner is as reliably gruff as ever as her supervisor (actually a composite of different real-life figures) and Jim Parsons plays a slightly less abrasive version of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.
There are moments in Hidden Figures that you can imagine have been dreamed up by Hollywood to make it more palatable for a white audience. The scene where Costner takes a sledgehammer to the ‘coloured bathroom’ sign never actually happened in reality and seems to have been written just so Costner can take the ‘white saviour’ role. Similarly, there’s one too many montages of Katherine running for the bathroom. In these instances, less would probably be more.
Yet despite its flaws, I found Hidden Figures to be an enjoyable and thoughtful tale, and by the time the credits roll around, showing the real photos of the three woman we’ve been watching, with a list of their many achievements, you can’t help but feel in awe of them.