UK Release Date: 17th February 2017
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder
Starring: Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell
Synopsis: Three black women defy segregation to become a key part of NASA’s engineering department in the 1960s as the nation battles endlessly to beat the Russians into space and, then, to the moon.
Inspirational historical stories are the bread and butter of awards season every year. Oscars 2017 is no exception, with the likes of Hacksaw Ridge fitting the bill nicely in that respect, joined there by Theodore Melfi‘s uplifting drama Hidden Figures. Focusing on the talented black women who helped to make space travel possible, Melfi’s film sheds its rather generic trappings to become something far more important and a great deal more interesting than a stuffy period drama. This is a story that needed to be told and Melfi does it through the prism of a witty, crowd-pleasing delight of a film.
Katherine Goble (Taraji P Henson) works as a ‘computer’, putting together figures for NASA alongside a group of black women, including Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and budding engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) promotes Katherine to work with the elite NASA engineers, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), working to get astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space. Despite bigoted opposition from colleagues like the arrogant Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine quickly becomes an integral part of the team and also forms a tender romance with military officer Jim (Mahershala Ali).
Movies that aim to please the crowd are often dismissed as being bland and unworthy of major awards attention. Hidden Figures is absolutely a glossy movie and absolutely a film that wants to leave its audience grinning as they skip euphorically out of the cinema. But that’s no bad thing. The film is a prime example of how incredibly conventional storytelling methods can still create movie magic when they are used by a director armed with flair and a worthwhile story to tell. Thankfully, Hidden Figures has both of these things in abundance. Melfi’s film is an outright onslaught of pleasure, proving the perfect vessel for an important story of egalitarian progress.
The lion’s share of the film’s success can be put down to its ensemble cast. The central trio of Henson, Spencer and Monáe are immediately believable as bickering, bantering best mates and their luminous performances bring the story immediately to life. Henson, in particular, is a stoic delight who proves just as capable with righteous rage as she is with quick wit and her warm, engaging relationship with Mahershala Ali’s gentle giant of a military man. Janelle Monáe is perhaps the real discovery of the film, spewing witticisms and defiance with real energy, but Spencer’s feel of experience and intelligence should not be under-estimated either.
Hidden Figures is most compelling when it is allowed to tell its story of women of colour shattering every glass ceiling they can find. Melfi’s script, co-written with Allison Schroeder, plays fast and loose with its history in order to construct a more compelling narrative, but the impact made by these women was real. The film does a great job of portraying the institutional racism of the 1950s by avoiding creating caricatures of racist characters. Instead, what we get is white men and women threatened by their system being usurped in favour of equality. Jim Parsons’ quiet disgust and fear of Katherine is far more illuminating than rows of people in white hoods spouting the N-word over and over again.
It’s a film about complexity, with the mathematics on show here completely unfathomable to the majority of viewers – this one included. However, Melfi’s film strikes the perfect balance between reams of jargon and dumbing down, creating genuine visual panache and surprising tension in the scenes of scribbling on blackboards. Everything in Hidden Figures is precision-tooled to make the audience smile and, by the time the credits roll, it’s impossible not to shed a little tear of joy at the enormity of what these women achieved and the importance of telling their story. Hopefully, thanks to this rousing, punch-the-air thrill ride of a film, these particular figures will not be hidden any longer.
Pop or Poop?
It’s not going to win big at the Oscars on Sunday, but Hidden Figures is far more significant than the size of its trophy cabinet. Theodore Melfi’s film has a smile on its face throughout and depicts women who, for the most part, broke through barriers simply by doing their job exceptionally well. Henson, Monáe and Spencer are tremendous in their roles, but it’s the real people who are the stars here and the fact that the film can tell their stories makes this perhaps the most significant film of the year so far.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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