Hidden Figures is one of those films that recalls an interesting story from history that most people are not aware of. The fact that it manages to do so in an uplifting way that avoids the pitfalls of similar genre films makes it a must-see.
2016 was a dark year. It wasn’t just the unfortunate passing of so many famous people, or the tumultuous world events, it was also the films. They frequently had depressing tones, sad endings, and tragic characters. In blockbusters, our favorite superheroes were fighting each other instead of fighting together. Horror films were intensely violent and disturbing, while the dramas focused often on loss and suffering. Into this abyss, we have Hidden Figures, a film that is unapologetically uplifting.
Seeing a happy film after so many sad films is refreshing. More importantly, it is proof that you do not need a soul-crushing story in order to illustrate an important point or tell a story in a meaningful way in these modern times. Hidden Figures is different than anything else you’ve seen this year. It doesn’t wallow in its own sorrows. It doesn’t feed you misery in order to get you to see your own life in a better light. Instead, it celebrates hard work, ambition, and the personal fulfilment that comes from exploring your potential.
If this description feels a bit old-school, you’re not incorrect. Although Hidden Figures may feel different from most of this years’ films, it doesn’t exactly tell its story in a new way. You’ve seen movies that tell uplifting stories of incredible underdogs achieving monumental goals. You know how the characters will struggle against trials both in the real world and in their mind to find victory. You also know that the film will tell its story in as streamlined a way as possible, skipping over some of the bumps and only showing the challenges that result in a net benefit. Hidden Figures is not innocent of this type of filmmaking. It’s created with a clear purpose. It doesn’t leave any ambiguities for the audience to work out in their own mind.
However, I can’t discredit the film for achieving exactly what it set up to do, and achieving that goal in an entertaining way. Although it may seem a bit old-fashioned among the more serious, and intense dramas this year, don’t mistake the sadness of those other films as some sort of sophistication that Hidden Figures lacks.
Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant African-American women in 1961 who work for NASA. Each of them has unique talents and strengths, but in the segregated time in which they live, they have to work extra hard just for the opportunity to do their jobs. Each of them faces a unique struggle, and through their strength of character and intelligence they are able to succeed in order to become an important part of the United States’ first efforts to put a man in space.
Some people might right off Hidden Figures right away because of its lighter tone amongst the serious Civil Rights backdrop in which it takes place. There are the typical Hollywood flourishes to be sure, but this is a film that is ultimately historically accurate. I felt that the film did a great job addressing those social issues in a way that benefited the story without adding a lot of distraction. Ultimately this film is about the accomplishments of three women who broke barriers. By focusing on their story primarily, the film celebrates them individually, rather than simply using their stories as an excuse to discuss the social injustice of the time period. It’s a story about three women who lived during the Civil Rights movement, not a story of the Civil Rights Movement that follows three women. The challenge that the film tackles is the efforts of NASA to put a man in orbit. The fact that these women also have to deal with inequalities in society and in the workplace is a testament to their efforts and makes their story that much more amazing.
Hidden Figures has its share of tense moments. The film makes a point to illustrate the challenges that these women are up against on a daily basis. From their car breaking down on the first day, to dealing with unsympathetic superiors, to the demanding hours they are forced to work, nothing comes easy. Yet, the film doesn’t wallow in misery. There’s always optimism that through one’s own actions a solution can be found.
The script and the editing help to enhance this approach through the structure of the film itself. The filmmakers splice in comedy and sweeter moments in between the darker ones. It achieves a perfect balance to remind you of some of the reasons these women put themselves through so much. Instead of just fighting against improbable odds, we see them as real individuals trying to live their life. We see what inspires and keeps them motivated. The film makes the story of these women into something more than just another example of exploit for “empowerment”. Their lives take center stage, not the events around them, including NASA’s efforts towards manned spaceflight. Making a film about the impressive people behind an impressive accomplishment is a surprising turn for the type of film we would expect the opposite of.
Director Theodore Melfi is best known as the director of the comedy St. Vincent, and it's easy to see how his background in comedy films is put to good use in Hidden Figures. One might expect that the implications of a story based around three black women combating social barriers in 1961 would be emotionally heavy, but that isn’t the case at all. For one, Melfi makes his actors the stars they deserve to be. He never sacrifices a narrow focus on the central three character’s lives. In turn, the actors bring a brilliance and an enthusiasm to the story that gives it an optimistic attitude.
By making the characters themselves the focus, not the situation they are living in, Hidden Figures becomes more than just a period drama. It becomes exciting, lively, and most importantly, surprisingly fun.
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematical prodigy at a young age who becomes one of NASA’s most valuable assets. Henson is a great fit for the role. She never feels out of place at home as mother, or on the job as a brilliant mathematician. Nothing is beyond her and the character that is presented is complete. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn, who would become an important programmer for NASA. Spencer gives her character the energy she is known for, but she is also the steady hand for the other characters who are living the same situation. She is able to communicate an inspirational message about making your own opportunities that is at the heart of the film. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a pioneering engineer. Monae brings the most energy of the central three characters, but is also very eloquent and composed, a trait that makes her character all that much more impressive. The supporting cast features Kevin Costner in a typical Kevin Costner role, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst in a surprising role, Jim Parsons, and Glen Powell who makes for an enthusiastic John Glenn.
Hidden Figures is a fitting title. The film may seem to be the kind of film that you’ve seen before, but it is full of surprises. It touches on a part of history that film has traditionally turned into a dark and tumultuous time, yet it is optimistic and uplifting. It centers around the familiar space race topic, yet it’s more than that. It’s more than just a forgotten part of history, even if that nugget is an interesting one. Instead, it’s about three inspirational people. The film makes these three women stand out with fantastic performances and a supporting direction. It is a film with characters that girls can actually look up to, and everyone else will find easily find something to appreciate. Hidden Figures is this years’ near-perfect feel-good flick.
A great story you didn't know needed to be told until now.
What's Good: Fantastic performances from the three leading ladies, direction enhances the appeal of the characters, interesting and inspirational story from history you didn't know about, great balance between high and low moments to create a consistent tone, optimistic and uplifting outlook is refreshing, has a script that is surprisingly effective.
What's Bad: Not the most creative film, clearly created with a singular perspective.