“Hidden Figures” makes heroes visible
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Oftentimes, history’s most important heroes are the ones you never see. Unfortunately, this had been the case for nearly half a century for three African American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
These three women – Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – were instrumental in sending astronaut John Glenn into space, which proved to be a critical moment in the vaunted Space Race.
The biographical drama “Hidden Figures,” recently nominated for three Academy Awards, tells the previously untold story of these three women. Set in 1961 in a segregated Virginia, the film follows Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson as they traverse the racist attitudes of NASA higher-ups in an attempt to prove their worth and break through both gender and race barriers in the process.
With only one previous directing credit to his name (2014’s Bill Murray vehicle “St. Vincent”), director Theodore Melfi is a relative unknown. However, with “Hidden Figures,” Melfi may well be on his way to being recognized as one of the most promising filmmakers of this generation.
Indeed, Melfi directs the film with an assured and charming style that brings levity to the serious subject matter of racial discrimination while never slipping into disrespectful territory.
Melfi ultimately positions the respective stories of his three lead actresses at the forefront of his film and does so in such a way that wholly engages the viewer. Nearly every shot of the film is framed with either all or one of the three actresses as the visual focal point – whether it be through a close-up shot of a character hard at work on an equation, or through a wide-shot of a character running from building to building to use a “colored” bathroom.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the screenplay of “Hidden Figures” was co-written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The film succeeds in relaying to the viewer the struggle each of the three women are forced to undergo.
“Hidden Figures” also successfully conveys the full humanity of each one of the three main characters through character development that feels natural and is enhanced by the fully round characterization put forth by the primary actors.
All the while, the film moves along at a brisk pace, likely to reflect the urgency with which the team at NASA acts in order to send Glenn into space. However, “Hidden Figures” also greatly benefits from frequent instances of humor that counteracts this urgency and further endears the three lead actresses to the audience.
Simply put, “Hidden Figures” could not succeed without strong performances from its three leads – and from the ensemble cast in general. Being a story about recognizing the humanity within all of us, the success of Melfi’s film largely rests on the abilities of his actors to fully convey that humanity.
And do they ever.
Taraji P. Henson shines as mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson, whose work as a calculator throughout the lead-up to John Glenn’s orbit into space serves as the narrative backbone of the film. Henson brings a fully realized vision of her character to the screen that encompasses all the various roles that Johnson takes on in her life. Not only does she perfectly portray the resolute and determined NASA employee who faces an uphill battle against racism, but Henson also brings warmth and humor to her character through her relationships with her family and friends.
Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae deliver equally memorable performances as Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively. Although their characters aren’t as prominently featured as Henson’s, both Spencer and Monae make the most of the screen time they’re allotted. Monae, best known for her career as an R&B and soul singer, is especially impressive, given her relative lack of acting experience alongside the Academy Award winning Spencer.
“Hidden Figures” is a rare cinematic achievement in that it is one of a select group of films in recent memory that truly feels important. Not only is the film an entertaining and exciting story of the indomitable human spirit, but it also serves as an all-too necessary history lesson that reminds us of the need for tolerance and the downfalls of discrimination.
The rich humanity that Henson, Spencer and Monae bring to their characters – combined with Melfi’s assured direction – truly makes “Hidden Figures” a film no one should be hiding from.