Director Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” is easily one of the best and brightest films of 2016.
Films tackling themes of racism are not rare, but seeing one that is noble and powerful without falling into melodrama or heavy-handedness can be.
“Hidden Figures” plays with a deft, realistic touch around its subject matter, which makes the drama feel close to the heart and truthful. The fact that it is based on a true story makes it even better.
The film takes place during the Space Race of the 1960s and centers around three African-American women who help perform and refine the math used to get American men into orbit.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a math prodigy — as seen in the opening flashback where she effortlessly tackles college level math as a young girl — who earns a job in NASA’s “Colored Computer” division.
Along with her are colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a programmer who does the work of a supervisor but is not allowed the title based on being black, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who hopes to be a NASA engineer.
When NASA requires someone who can perform analytic geometry, Johnson is transferred to the department of mathematicians struggling to pin down the math required to safely launch and land a space mission. The mathematicians are, of course, all white men.
Johnson’s job is hindered by her sometimes hostile colleagues, namely Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). When she pours herself a cup of coffee, she is stared at like she just shot the president. She returns to work the next day to find another coffee pot labeled “colored”; it doesn’t even work.
Johnson is also forced to run over half a mile across the campus in high heels to use the colored restroom, a running theme that finally culminates in an angry speech that is brilliantly, perfectly acted by Henson. She deserves an Oscar nomination for that alone.
Vaughn’s and Jackson’s stories intertwine with Johnson’s in a manner that is as natural as the easy rapport between the three women. Vaughn is set up as a skilled mechanic in one of the opening scenes, and to see her learn the FORTRAN programming language and take on the IBM mainframe despite the constant disrespect from her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) is beautifully inspiring.
The hidden gem here is Monae, who plays Jackson with perfect comedic timing and sarcasm. She must attend a court hearing in order to gain clearance to attend an all-white school for her engineering training. Her response is one of the year’s best scenes.
Kevin Costner also has a good turn as Al Harrison, the boss of Johnson’s math group. He is at first bemused with Johnson’s presence, but they soon learn to trust and respect one another.
His reaction upon learning of Johnson’s repeated runs to the “colored bathroom” may seem somewhat over the top. But wasn’t it “outrageous” actions like those of freedom riders and those who participated in lunch counter sit-ins who inspired change in racial norms? So maybe it isn’t too much at all.
“Hidden Figures” deserves all of the awards praise it continues to accumulate. More powerful yet is that these figures of history are hidden no longer.
I hope that Hollywood continues to make films that address racism in such an inspiring manner as this; not only that, I hope Hollywood continues to find roles for women of color that are not slaves, nannies or some such thing. People of color can and should be heroes too.
Seeing math in such a gloriously geeked-out and exciting fashion isn’t too bad either.