Hidden Figures | reviews, news & interviews
Oscar contender is buoyed aloft by its irresistible brio
Sometimes a film can transcend its formulaic confines. That's triumphantly the case with Hidden Figures, a largely prosaically told reworking of the outsider-versus-the-system paradigm that gains piquancy from the story it has to tell and the vibrant personages at its centre. The chronicle of three black female mathematicians who against all sorts of odds transformed America's space movement in the early 1960s for keeps, Theodore Melfi's slice of a forgotten swath of history might have "Oscar upset" written across it – if La La Land at this point didn't look like such a lock.
That the film has also soared at the box office is heartening news in itself: a reminder that largescale audiences do exist for a portrait of a time when black lives didn't particularly matter, as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Johnson each discovered in different ways. First encountered on a Virginia road where the three women are tending to a broken-down car only to be approached by a white police officer who brings with him the whiff of fear, Melfi alongside Allison Schroeder's screenplay make implicit the irony of a country devoted to the pursuit of findings in space when so much needs doing here on planet earth. (The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly's bestseller of the same title.)
Not that our fearless and feisty trio are going to let colour barriers and prejudice – not to mention ages-old misogyny – stand in their way. Glimpsed at the start as a six-year-old whiz with numbers whose prowess simply will not be contained, Katherine (Taraji P Henson) is re-encountered as an adult handpicked to join what had been a men's-only flight research team. She immediately faces challenges that range from making coffee from a "colored" pot to sprinting to hell and back in order to find a toilet she can use. Her loo breaks are played for physical comedy shot through inevitably with pathos at the absurd injustice of it all, and the wonderful Henson does both parts of that equation proud, Pharrell Williams's aptly titled "Runnin'" providing a musical cue. While Katherine makes herself increasingly crucial to an initially hostile set of colleagues – the shining exception being her gum-chewing boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner on fine form, pictured above to the left of Henson) – Dorothy (Octavia Spencer, the lone Oscar nominee of the three women) awaits promotion to the rank of supervisor of a room of adroit black mathematicians who must not be left to languish. Her white superior is played by a tight-lipped Kirsten Dunst, who is the equivalent in Dorothy's worklife of the sneering Jim Parsons, one of Harrison's stable and a colleague who all but hisses steam every time Katherine enters his midst. That leaves Mary (the radiant Jonelle Monáe, concurrently also on view in Moonlight), whose own advancement as NASA's first female black engineer depends upon her being able to attend a local, whites-only school. Exuding a whiplash authority with every glance, Monáe projects Mary's intelligence informed at every turn by street smarts.
The women's domestic lives get a look-in now and again, with Moonlight Oscar hopeful Mahershala Ali invaluably on hand as the military man who is there in body and soul for the brainiac that is Katherine. But it's the life of the mind that exists to be celebrated here, as the women ascend in varying ways into career-related orbit, catching the attention of no less a figure than John Glenn (Glen Powell, playing a part amplified in resonance by Glenn's death the same month as the film's American release).
One might wish, I suppose, for filmmaking that itself possessed something of the take-no-prisoners savvy and wit embodied by our triptych of heroines: Melfi's direction takes the expected, conventional route towards uplift, when one wonders what a Barry Jenkins, say, might have made of the same material. On the other hand, I can't imagine not feeling a lump in the throat, not least when the final credits reveal actual images of the women themselves (Johnson is nearing 100), via the same sort of pictorial epilogue on view at Lion and here entirely appropriate to this tribute to three great ladies and how they found it within themselves to roar.
Overleaf: watch the trailer for Hidden Figures
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