Hidden Figures

Directed By: Theodore Melfi

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Aldis Hodge

History is told by those who wield the pen or the mic.  What we often remember is what we're told to remember over and over again by those in a position to tell it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the contributions made by African-Americans that have been vital to the success of the United States.  From the free slave labor that ensured economic prosperity for whites for generations to the economic recovery from the Great Recession helmed by our first black president, America is often short on perspective when it comes to contributions from people of color.  It comes as no surprise that this would be the case when talking about the Space Race back during both the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Contributions from brilliant black women who helped propel us not only to catch up but to get ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race have never gotten the recognition they deserve.  These women enabled monumental moments in our nation's history that are emblematic of the very idea of American exceptionalism, and we never heard of them until recently.  Well, Theodore Melfi is in a place to tell some history, and he delightfully highlights these gems in his latest feature Hidden Figures.

It's 1961.  Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) make the trip to NASA's campus in Langley, Virginia on a daily basis.  There, they work as computers. Involved behind the scenes in the Space Race, these mathematically gifted black women actually calculate and verify the numbers that enable the artful science of getting men off the planet and into the stars.  With Dorothy unable to get a promotion to supervisor courtesy of white computer Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), Mary unable to become an engineer despite the help of her colleague Karl Zielinkski (Olek Krupa), and Katherine's immeasurable talents altogether going to waste, it's abundantly clear that these hidden figures don't get the credit they deserve.  This begins to change as Dorothy looks to the future to get ahead of her white counterparts and Mary pursues the coursework needed to become an engineer.  Most notably, Katherine gets an assignment with the Space Task Group and gets to make the most of her genius abilities.

As the Soviet Union continues to make progress in shooting for the stars, Space Task Group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wants to get the job done.  He wants and needs to beat the Soviets.  He needs to get John Glenn (Glen Powell) and the other NASA astronauts into space.  As Harrison tries to get his team to look beyond the numbers and make the impossible possible, opportunity begins to knock for Katherine, who begins to put her mathematical prowess on display for her white colleagues.  Despite the empty coffee pot for colored people, the colored bathroom a half mile away, and the racist, sexist protestations of her immediate supervisor Paul Stanford (Jim Parsons), Katherine begins to make her mark and crunch numbers no one ever has before.  As John Glenn's launch approaches, Harrison and the Space Task Group become increasingly reliant on Katherine.

I've got nothing but love for Hidden Figures.  Director Theodore Melfi's historical comedy-drama does what the best films do.  It teaches moviegoers something they probably never knew before the theater darkened and the film began.  It illuminates the contributions of three brilliant black women in ensuring that the United States ultimately succeeded in the Space Race.  It showcases how their brilliance saves lives even when they're marginalized time and time again.  Yes, Melfi wields his camera to add some important details to the history books and better inform America's perspective on this pivotal moment in the 1960s.  Beyond the sheer historical value of the film, Hidden Figures is a well-crafted and entertaining piece of cinema from Melfi that boasts plenty of comedy, great costume work, and a groovy score.

Following The Birth of a Nation and Fences, Hidden Figures culminates probably the most impressive slate of movies about the black experience in America since 2013 (i.e. Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, & 12 Years a Slave).  While it may not serve up the juicy, brilliant performances like the ones from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to which we were treated in Fences, Hidden Figures does have a trio of endearing performances from three women with a fire in them as well as some strong supporting turns.  For her part as the insanely gifted Katherine Johnson, Taraji P. Henson gives a notably shy and reserved performance.  Every now and then, her character explodes into something fierier after no shortage of trials and persecution, but Henson gives a quietly noble portrayal of her subject on the whole.  For her part as Dorothy Vaughan, Octavia Spencer brings the combination of a persistent tenacity and a maternal warmth to the film in a way that only she can.  She shares her best moments with Kirsten Dunst's Vivian Mitchell.  Janelle Monáe gives us the most vocal member of our lead trio in Mary Jackson.  Not mincing words and calling a spade a spade, Monáe shines in one of her first major roles on the big screen.  Finally, I'm a fan of Kevin Costner's supporting turn as Al Harrison, a cranky middle-aged white man with some spontaneity.

Hidden Figures
seems to largely be a hidden gem this awards season, at least to deliberative bodies handing out golden statuettes this winter.  It even goes under the insulting alias Hidden Fences.  Still, it's a film for all to see that informs us of what's not in the history books in a delightfully entertaining way.  Theodore Melfi's period dramedy Hidden Figures hits the mark and earns a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.