Hidden Figures – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
In Hidden Figures NASA’s most brilliant minds and their extraordinary faces, are hidden behind the figures and calculated trajectories of America’s first attempts at entering the Space Race. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae portray three women employed by NASA, their work and contribution to the space program, crucial to its eventual success. The lives of the remarkable careers of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson remained latent information, their absence from common knowledge due in no small part, to the colour of their skin. At the brink of civil rights unrest in 1961, Hidden Figures follows these three women and their struggle to overcome the deeply embedded segregation laws, all the while attempting to correctly propel a man into space.
Opening credits display the three women, well dressed and en route to work. Amidst the green fields of racially segregated Virginia however, this is an anomaly. Cut to their arrival at work in NASA’s headquarters, we witness the vile disrespect and unjust segregation they must endure. Inside those walls white men dominate and the only tolerance for ‘black’ is exclusively reserved for their coffee. This prevails to the extent that when Henson’s character is assigned to the East Wing after being coldly received by over thirty men and a prickly receptionist, a secondary coffee pot labelled ‘colored’ insidiously appears. Overtime, it is the women’s undeniably brilliant minds that despite undue resistance, shine out and simply cannot be ignored. A helpful dose of feminine guile, compounded with their superior abilities that gradually allow the segregated barriers to recede. After all as Kevin Costner’s character cries, ‘we’re all playing for the same team.’ Costner flourishes in a modest supporting role, as the Wrigley gum-chewing superior, determined to beat the Russians at all costs, including of course the transcending of segregation boundaries.
Disappointingly however, Hidden Figures never quite adds up. Jim Parsons, known famously for his starring role as Sheldon the scientist in The Big Bang Theory, fails to step up. Whether a victim of irritating typecast or the two dimensional material itself, his character suffers from being labelled as the enemy, accompanied with no moral resolution. Then, there is that inevitable Good Will Hunting element where there is only so long the illogically minded can stand the mathematical aspect. Characters gaze at chalkboards, mesmerized at figures and equations, with the same reverence of looking up at the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps this depends on preference, but I’m inclined to think that these sequences attempt to make up for something that is clearly not there.
It is quite extraordinary how such a story slipped through the cracks of history refusing to be told. Having said that, an extraordinary true event does not seamlessly translate to an extraordinary film and it is this mismatch that makes Hidden Figures simply good, rather than great.