“If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?”
“I wouldn’t have to, I would already be one.”
Hidden Figures is the story of just three of the many overlooked and forgotten black women who spent their days working at NASA verifying and calculating some of the most important mathematics in American history, all while living in segregated West Virginia in the 1960s. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan made huge contributions in the fields of Mathematics, Engineering, and Computer Programming during NASA’s incredibly important space race. Amidst doing their part for the seemingly possible task of putting a man in space, they have to deal with segregated workplaces, bathrooms, schools and even coffee pots.
While the crux of the story is meant to rely on Katherine, the uninspiring effort Taraji P. Henson brings leaves a lot to be desired. She’s able to show Katherine as someone with multiple layers,with a family and love – more than just a incredibly intelligent person. However, even with all those facets to her personality, Taraji fails in making Katharine feel like a real person outside of a character. Her slightly erratic mannerisms and actions, all feel like they should be integral to the character, but never quite make it to natural.
This absence leaves Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer to pick up the slack and breathe life into the movie. In playing Dorothy Vaughan, Octavia Spencer is everything we’ve come to expect and love. While this role feels like familiar shoes for the powerhouse, it’s impossible to get tired of her charisma and charm. The moment she speaks in the first minute of the movie, who know exactly who her character is, and you love her. However, it’s always worth mentioning how underrated of an actress she is, with a much wider range than it normally presented to her.
The surprise hit for me was Janelle Monáe, as Mary Jackson. From the beginning she adds a spark and authenticity to a proud, confident and intelligent woman that some actors would struggle with. The natural way Janelle carries herself carries over to her role, and created a character I could not get enough of. In fact, she is slightly underused in the role on a whole. Her struggle and personal victory seems to move faster than the others, until about two-thirds of the way through, when her story plateaus and we shift focus back to Katherine and Mrs. Vaughan. Still, after seeing her brief role in Moonlight, it was a wonderful chance to see even more her here.
Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, whose role, while inspiring in it’s nature, seems to mostly be to turn every sentence into a team speech. While his placement seems clear to be for the white audience (if I had been there, I would be him, not Kirsten Dunst’s cold and entirely realistic racist Vivan Michael, or Jim Parson’s credit-hogging and smug Paul Stafford), his over-the-top dramatics turn an attempt to break down some of the struggles only black women face, into a big show. “Look at me, I’m better than this, we all pee the same colour at NASA,” he says, in all his while male privilege.
Karl Zelinski (Olek Krupa), plays a far more realistic and inspiring role. As a Polish Jewish man who escaped from a Nazi prison camp, he’s not only empathetic to the hurdles Mary Jackson faces, but an actual ally. Instead of grand gestures and humanity only in the face of having it spelled out for him, he quietly supports and elevates Mary from the beginning. Getting her hired full-time on his team, pushing her to apply for the engineering program, and offering her support in the face of the impossible.
Hidden Figures, as a movie based real people, relies heavily on these characters and their actors. The events unfolding are inherently interesting, when they were happening in real life an entire country watched. However, there’s an attempt of urgency created at the beginning of the film, a perpetual countdown of 9 days, then a week, than a few months to do the unthinkable. All of the characters appear to be on tight timelines and deadlines are always right around the corner, but this sense of urgency is undercut with scenes of tucking kids into bed and parties. It’s important to show these characters beyond their workplace, they had lives beyond NASA, but the juxtaposition of the next launch with church sermons hurts the overall pace of the film.
Even with some awkward acting, shoe-horned speeches, and unsure pacing, Hidden Figures is a thoroughly enjoyable night out. The premise had me hooked from the first trailer, and the movie gives just enough that I bought the book right after to learn more about the three central astonishing women. In the mass of overwhelming white male biopics and stories being maade, Hidden Figures was a breath of fresh air, not just in its focus on black women, but a completely new story about people who have been so forgotten in history.