Whoever said girls can’t do math have never met Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were three amongst many women of colour whose math skills help bring America into space. They are finally getting their dues in Hidden Figures, a lighthearted biopic from Theodore Melfi, director of St. Vincent.
When we first meet Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae), they’re car is stalled. To make matters worse, a cop pulled over to give them a hard time. How does it end? With the cop escorting them to NASA. “Three Negro women chasing a white police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia.” As Mary would say; “That there is a God-ordained miracle!” It’s 1961 and the space race is on. Our lady trio are among many black women working as “Computers” for the program. From this position, each woman begins a push beyond what’s expected of them.
Katherine gets assigned to the Space Task Group, an Engineer team led by the hard ass director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The team are rude of her, especially head of engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). They put up a separate coffee maker for her. On top of that, the building has no coloured bathroom, forcing her to walk across a parking lot just to go pee. Even without the subject of race and gender, the formulas change so much that a calculation can become obsolete. Harrison puts it perfectly; “The end of the day was yesterday.”
Meanwhile, Mary gets assigned to assist engineers designing a space capsule. With some encouragement from head engineer and holocaust survivor Karl Zielinski (Olke Krupa), Mary decides to pursue an engineering degree. Then some new rules states NASA engineers need to receive a degree from an all-white campus. “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line.” So, she must go to court to be allowed into that school.
Dorothy on the other hand, assigns work to the other computers. Though she’s technically doing the work of a supervisor, her condescending boss Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). And now an IBM computer threatens to take her job, along with her co-workers. Instead of taking it lying down, Dorothy teaches herself how to operate that computer.
The film looks at the subtler forms of racism. Many character’s racism takes on a more passive aggressive form, with employees staring at Katherine when she pours a cup of coffee. There is also the institutional racism that undermines our heroines’ success. When Zielinski asks Mary if she would have applied for an engineer if she were a white man, she responds with “I wouldn’t have to, because I’d already be one.” With such an unfair system, they are at times forced to tweak the odds, like swiping a book from an all-white library.
You got three fascinating underdog stories, each one worthy of their own movies. The three actresses deliver excellent performances. The timid math genius couldn’t be more different from the feisty Cookie Lyon, proving Henson’s excellent range. Monae sinks her teeth into the spitfire touch Mary, bouncing off the other two with great comedic delivery. She’s equally effective in the trial scene where she tries to convince the judge to let her study at the white school. For Vaughn, Spencer brings a combination of authority and spunk. They have great chemistry together, conveying the beautiful friendship their characters share.
There are a few problems I have with this movie. While the stories are still incredible, film looks so plain. It’s not bad, it just that the cinematography doesn’t stand out the way the rest of the best picture nominees do. Some moments can be too sappy. That moment when Harrison smashes the coloured bathroom sign with a sledgehammer is just cheesy. Speaking of Harrison, the film seems to create new characters. I get creating Mrs. Mitchell and Paul Stafford to embody attitudes of the time, but instead of creating Harrison and Zielinski, why not just use their real-life counterparts Robert Gilruth and Kaz Czarnecki? It seems kind of disrespectful when representing everyone’s legacy.
Despite the flaws, Hidden Figures is still an entertaining biopic about three underappreciated women and their contributions to space. Looks like these ladies are finally getting their due.