On the face of it, Hidden Figures looks like a fairly straightforward “based on a true story” mainstream melodrama. The standard cosy peril, with a feel good ending and a bit of politics thrown in. Of course, if that’s all you think after watching it then you’re a thundering idiot. Hidden Figures is a piece of history that needed to be told. One that doesn’t purely portray Black Americans as either violent or suffering. A sharp, subtle dig at the industry’s reflex to whitewash history. At a time where we have The Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell it’s a more pertinent dig than ever.
Taraji P. Henson stars at Katherine G. Johnson, one of NASA’s finest mathematicians who calculated flight trajectories for numerous space missions and helped provide a standard-bearer for ethnic minorities and women in what is still a world dominated by white men. Also featured are Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson played by the magnetic on-screen presence of Janelle Monae.
Director Theodore Melfi, with only his second feature film, has crafted an excellent true-life drama well worthy of award consideration. The scandal is that Henson herself hasn’t been nominated for any awards. She excels as Johnson, a tough role to take on, such is the importance of her achievements during the 20th century.
The subtle mannerisms, stuttered pauses and darting her eyes around Henson is mesmerizing. Conveying a sense of frenetic thinking from someone not only having to deal with disgraceful discrimination but having to lower her extraordinary level of intelligence to communicate with people who probably seemed like toddlers to her but she was far too damn decent to say so.
In support, we have Spencer, once again delivering a performance of understatement and nuance. She’s so consistently good you almost take her for granted and we have Janelle Monae, simultaneously starring in the magnificent Moonlight. Once again, she proves to be a magnetic screen presence as the super-sharp Mary Jackson, the first ever black, female engineer at NASA who rose to become their most senior engineer.
Melfi’s direction is well done. Sure, it takes a few small liberties with the history for some dramatic tension as these films tend to do but by and large Melfi sticks to the base facts. He delivers exactly the kind of film Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name deserves. Especially as the real story of how African-American women helping America to win the space race is far more interesting and inspiring than fiction. Women who weren’t handed opportunities but earned them, even as others kept trying to shift the goalposts to keep them out.
The result, is a superbly entertaining, enjoyable and engaging motion picture.
Hidden Figures is exactly the kind of story Hollywood needs to be telling more of. As a white man, I can safely say white people were not leading the way in every great historical achievement or at the centre of every event. This film ridicules the notion that history is written by the winners. History is written by the ones who burn everybody else’s books and force those poor bastards to read their new books at gunpoint. Hidden Figures is a reminder to all of us of that sad fact.