Boy, this was a film that tried to appeal to everyone – A film about launching the first astronauts into space, while also a civil rights movie at the same time. And it’s based on true events.
On the one hand, “Hidden Figures” is bare-bones and is about as predictable as you can get. Every emotional note is hit right when you’d expect it and it is filled to the brim with speeches about race, equality, perseverence, and getting into space. This makes the film hoaxy and cheesy in its execution.
And yet, the hoaxyness of “Hidden Figures” makes the film endearing, because of the intensity and tenacity behind its many great performances. I left the theatre with a smile on my face, just like any great feel-good movie should.
Set during the space-race between the Soviet Union and America shortly after the Soviets launch Sputnik, NASA has now become determined to put a man into space and orbit around the planet. To do this, they hire the best minds and engineers they can find, which include mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janeele Monae) and mathematician/supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). All three not only face the problems of being the first people to launch someone out of our atmosphere in a flaming ball of hot metal, but also the constant struggles of racial discrimination and gender inequality in the heat of the civil rights movement, in an environment surrounded by white men.
This film would not have worked if it were not for its three lead actresses. In the hands of less capable or convincing talents, “Hidden Figures” would fly apart at the seams.
Henson is quiet and reversed, yet is so strong and determined to show her worth that her intensity cannot be ignored. There’s a fire in her eyes that made her performance so captivating, which I did not expect from the opening that showed her character as this hyper -intelligent child that did not like people, similar to Sherlock Holmes. Yet Henson plays Katherine as a woman desperately trying to earn her place in a world she knows that she belongs in.
Monae is fiesty and independent, which leads her to being the funniest of the three as she stands up to her husband and friends. While she gets the least amount of screentime of the three, Monae packs each scene with charm and a little bit of sass as she bucks the system. Her stand out scene comes when she confronts a county judge, as she lists off his accomplishments and how he has always supported change.
Spencer, as always, is a wonderful actress here – killing her enemies with kindness. She has the quiet quality of Henson and the sass of Monae when she needs it, but her tenacity and willingness to learn is what gets me. She has a motherly quality to her character, as someone who cares more about the well-being of others over herself, which makes Spencer perfect for this role.
Together these three ladies show different sides to handling racial discrimination, while also trying to contribute to the world. Their chemistry with each other comes off as three supportive sisters who realize the world is not going to change over night and they need to take care of each other. All three carry the difficult task of making these over-the-top lines carry the weight they need without overselling it.
While I can say I have seen stories like “Hidden Figures” a dozen times before, I cannot say I’ve seen performances quiet like the ones these three gave.
Overall, “Hidden Figures” accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do through its feel-good performances and story that reflects all the charms and curses of the 1960s. It made me laugh, cheer, and think, which is a great thing for any movie to do.
Final Grade: B