Film Review: Hidden Figures

by Carrie Kahn on December 25, 2016

Hidden figures brought to light in inspiring new film

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) performs a calculation that will help NASA successfully launch manned capsules into space.

2016 hasn’t exactly been a stellar year in a lot of ways, but in terms of film, it’s been an exceptional year for girl power movies. This is a year in which we saw a brave 13-year-old stand strong against centuries of male-dominated tradition in The Eagle Huntress, a 14-year-old chess prodigy overcome tremendous odds in Queen of Katwe, and now, in Theodore Melfi’s new film Hidden Figures, we witness a trio of African-American women contribute to national success despite facing rampant and demoralizing sexism and racism in the segregated south of the early 1960s. There has never been a better time to be inspired at the movies.

Melfi’s film, based on a book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, dramatizes the true story of three African-American women who worked in the segregated West Area Computers Division at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia during the height of the space race. At the time, Russia had bested the U.S. in sending a man into space, and the U.S. was determined to push forward with its own manned space capsule launches and orbits, and quickly. Needing all the help it could get, NASA employed across gender and race lines, although the Langley campus remained segregated; the African-American women “computers”, as they were called, who performed the complex calculations for shuttle launch and landing coordinates, were relegated to their own building across the campus from the white, male engineers also working towards the same ultimate goal.

The movie focuses on three of these women: Dorothy Vaughn  (Octavia Spencer), a lead in her division seeking a permanent supervisor position, despite the condescension of her icy boss (Kirsten Dunst, oozing disdain); Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has aspirations to be an engineer, but must overcome racist and sexist night school rules to take the necessary courses; and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical whiz who is assigned to help the all male, all white Space Task Group.

The “computers” meet John Glenn (Glen Powell).

While all the women get due screen time, Katherine becomes our primary hero, as we watch her face the bitter resentment of her colleagues, who add a “colored” coffee pot to their office once she joins. Confident in her abilities, though, Katherine is undaunted, and earns the attention and respect of her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, solid), despite the protestations of a petulant and snippy engineer played by Jim Parsons (who may be in danger of being typecast as weird science dudes).

Watching the story unfold as the women face these sorts of small and large indignities is both maddening and inspiring, and Henson, Monáe, and Spencer all are in top form, bringing these women to life with nuanced shades of exhaustion and determination, and letting us not just watch, but truly feel, their disappointments and their triumphs.

There’s only one scene in the film that feels out of step with the rest. When Katherine transfers to Harrison’s division, she still must use the “colored” women’s room far across campus from her office, back in the segregated West Area Computers building in which she used to work. Doing so means Harrison is always looking for Katherine at inopportune times, wondering where she is. After weeks of literally running across campus carrying her calculations with her so as not to lose precious time reviewing them, Katherine finally, in a powerful and applause-worthy scene, tells Harrison, in front of all her white male colleagues, exactly why she’s gone so many minutes of the day after he testily questions her. What should have followed should have been a cut-away scene to Katherine walking just steps from her desk to use the women’s room nearest to her office; we’d know then that it was her assertiveness that made the difference, and got her what she needed.

Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy (from left: Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer) celebrate some good news.

But instead, what we get is Costner’s Harrison, marching out to the “colored” bathroom and knocking down its sign with a big mallet, while all the women gather and watch. “Here at NASA, we all pee out the same color,” he says, as the music swells. That Melfi felt he had to give this heroic, set-piece moment to his white, male actor in a film that celebrates the accomplishments of African-American women seems incredibly tone deaf and out of place, and takes away from Henson’s own powerful scene from only minutes before, which, in itself, would have served the same dramatic purpose just fine, if not better.

Melfi redeems himself slightly, though, by including a scene that apparently really happened, in which astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) won’t trust the coordinates NASA is giving him for his Friendship capsule re-entry until “the girl” verifies them. That “girl” is Katherine, and when she is called in to the control room to help, to the surprise and chagrin of her assembled male colleagues, it’s one of the most moving and uplifting scenes in film this year.

The picture ends by showing photographs of the real women, which is a nice way to bring the attention back where it should have been all along: on the women who faced fierce opposition to breaking long-established racial and gender barriers, but who did so anyway – for the good of their country then, and for all of us now.

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Hidden Figures opens today at the Metreon in San Francisco, and on Jan. 6th at other Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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