Hidden Figures is bold, beautiful and intelligent, just like its main characters.
Set in the sixties, the movie follows the lives of three african american, female NASA employees. Taraji Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson, an exceptionally intelligent mathematician, Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, a gifted engineer and Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician, computer programmer and their supervisor. The three talented women work in a segregated manual computing department in NASA until, owing to their skills, they join predominantly male, white teams. This is at the height of the space race and the story of the rise of these three women from quiet, invisible employees to indispensable leaders parallels the nation’s desperate push to send a man into space.
One of the early scenes in the film shows the three women on the side of a road because their car has broken down, which attracts the attention of a policeman. This scene in itself encompasses what the entire film is about. That scene is nuanced screenwriting at its best and combined with the rest of the brilliant script will hopefully earn director Theodore Melfi (who co-wrote the script) and writer Allison Schroeder an Oscar.
The movie isn’t completely subtle in its messaging though, most of the time, it says it out loud, but therein lies its charm. It makes you want to stand up and cheer for a group of mathematicians. The sets and costumes are beautifully glossy and instead of covering the darkness in the film, highlight them in a stunning manner – from segregated bathrooms and bus seating to a woman in a colorful dress in a sea of men in white shirts, the film has its own vivid visual narrative.
Janelle Monáe’s character at one point says there is more than one way to achieve something. That is perhaps the entire backbone of this movie, untold stories of people who contributed to the success of the civil rights movement in their own way. Each of the women face and overcome both racial and gender discrimination in their own inventive ways.
The male actors who support the strong female lead cast are perfect in weaving together this amazing tale – Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, Director of the Space Task Group, Glen Powell as John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth and Jim Parsons as the Head Engineer in Katherine’s team.
While it is set in the sixties, there are so many instances that will make you think that not much has changed in terms of the racially charged atmosphere or in the struggle of women around the world in professional environments. Take for instance one of my favourite exchanges in the movie :
Al: …John, our guys are on it.
John: Let’s get the girl to check the numbers.
Al: The girl? Do you mean Katherine?
John: Yes sir, the smart one.
The screenplay absolutely nails it with that last bit by John, how many of us can say that is how a female colleague of color would be described today? Forget professional environments, as a woman of color who has been on a bus full of white people, there have been occasions which would make me think not much has changed even there.
In many ways that is what makes Hidden Figures so relevant in the world today – it shows us how far we have come and yet how much more there is to achieve. It really is the complete package – a supremely talented cast, a catchy soundtrack (Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, yes!), delicious costumes (one could write an entire piece on just the significance of the costumes in this film, brilliant work by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus) and above all, an amazing screenplay. Director Theodore Melfi delivers this package in a nuanced yet wide-audience appealing manner – a balance that is so rare in the world of cinema today.