History is often shaped by those who tell it. This is why many will know the tale of John Glen’s historic journey that made him the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, but few will have heard of some of the people that helped him get there. Theodore Melfi’s latest film Hidden Figures aims to change that by shining a light on three African-American women whose contributions to history deserved far more recognition.
Set during the 1960s, when the space race was tapping into America’s imagination and paranoia, and the civil rights movement was shaking the country’s moral consciousness, Hidden Figures focuses on three women who helped to shape one of America’s defining moments. Feeling the sting of knowing that Russia was first to send a man into space, NASA was frantic to be the first to get a man to orbit the Earth. Unfortunately, they could not figure out the calculations required to ensure John Glen’s (Glen Powell) safe re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Desperate to crack the code, and introducing new cutting edge technology like the IBM mainframe, it would take the intellect of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) to teach NASA a thing or two in more ways than one.
Following in the tradition of biopics such as The Blind Side and The Danish Girl, Hidden Figures is not shy about themessage it is designed to convey. Touching on issues of racism, segregation, sexism, and feminism, the film tackles the subject matter in a way that mainstream audiences can easily digest. However, unlike The Blind Side for example, which tells the African-American experience from a white perspective, Melfi allows the women to be the captains of their own ship.
As traditional as the narrative is, there is something undeniably entertaining about watching a film where the female protagonists, women of colour no less, are consistently the smartest people in the room. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all great in their given roles. It is through their performances Melfi is able to effectively show numerous examples of racial injustice without being too heavy-handed. Sure certain moments, take when Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison smashes the coloured only washroom sign, are a little too on the nose, and the film does play it safer than it probably should, but these sections it do little to take away from the film’s overall charm.
Hidden Figures may not offer much in the way of surprises, it is obvious that things will work out for the women in the end, including Johnson finding love with the dashing Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). However, it is an important that is more than worthy of your attention. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are all women who deserve praise for their accomplishments. Though their contributions may have been once hidden in the pages of history, Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleaser that brings the women’s intellect and struggles to light in an engaging way.