By: Muneeb Arshid
The women of NASA during the heyday? Yeah, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know anything about the wonderful ladies who were working as mathematicians in the 1960s at the Space Agency. Hidden Figures does a decent enough job to tell the story of three black women who were highly instrumental in ensuring the first flight of an American to orbit the earth.
Most people know about the wonderful accomplishment by John Glenn, who was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in February of 1962. Most people knowing about Glenn (who recently passed away) isn’t the surprise, but if anyone knew about the people behind the scenes who got Glenn into space, then I would find that a surprise. Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) who helped figure out the maths and were involved in the engineering of the Friendship 7 spaceship that got Glenn into space.
The story is about the three ladies as they fight segregation of the era but also segregation within NASA, which the three all combated at certain points of their careers to advance and make their mark in the agency and ultimately in the history of the country.
Because of segregation, the three women, with the rest of their colleagues, worked in a separate division in the Computers division in Hampton, Virginia. To start, they are shown to be submissive to the white majority, something that the women are not proud of, but is something that they must upkeep to maintain their jobs. However, when the time comes, NASA does come calling for higher positions as no other women are more qualified than the three main protagonists.
We follow Katherine for the most part as she works her way through the struggle of being both black and a woman in the 1960s in the Southern US. She initially gets her promotion to the main team which is a shock to the all-male team lead by Kevin Costner‘s slightly more modern director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison. Katherine is supervised by Jim Parsons‘ Paul Stafford and initially him and the rest of the team act as if segregation rules still apply so the men eventually put out “black only” coffee pots for Katherine and there is no “black only” washroom in the building for Katherine to use. Costner’s Harrison is the one who gets rid of all these segregative behaviours because it starts to hinder the work of the team and Harrison cannot, at any cost, have that occur.
The film also follows Mary Jackson, an engineer who was also working in the computer labs with the rest of the black women, who is brought onto the Space Task Group and paired up with the chief engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) who pushes Mary to pursue and obtain her engineering degree even though the only school in town is white male-only. She petitions the court and is eventually able to get her diploma and works on Friendship 7 as one of the engineers.
Hidden Figures does a great job in telling the story of these three wonderful women, and at the same time telling a story of a time where segregation was practiced whole-heartedly by a major portion of the population. So you will learn a lot about these three women at NASA, something that not very many people may be aware of.
However, there are some very odd tonal choices that the film’s director Theodore Melfi takes that slightly undercut the importance of the issues. First, the film isn’t able to decide whether it wants to be a serious film about the fight against segregation with some remarkably serious scenes between some of the characters regarding race and the lack of opportunities because of race. Then, there are points where the film completely takes an 180° turn and tries to include comedic elements to try and lighten the mood. For the most part, this isn’t a bad strategy, however, you become more aware of the contrast between the tone when the tonal switch occurs in back-to-back scenes and that leaves a bad feeling as if the director doesn’t really want to take the issue seriously.
In terms of the characters, the three lead women do a decent to a great job in their roles as the women working in NASA. I felt both Monae and Spencer were in terrific form with the former coming off a very strong performance in the ever wonderful Moonlight. Spencer as she has been in the past, was flawless in her emotional role as the leader of the black women working with the computers and someone who is not recognized by the overall supervisor for the women, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).
Henson, as well, puts in a very good performance in the lead, however, there were small niggles with the way that she decided or was directed to act her parts that left me slightly less happy with her performance. In the role that she has been given, there is somewhat a bit of a casualness in her performance that doesn’t necessarily give it the heft of other stronger performances by others in this film as well as others in similar roles in different movies.
There are two type casts in this films, one for the good and one not so good. First, the good and once again we expect no less from Kevin Costner in the leadership role as Al Harrison. The two-time Academy Award winner has been in countless leadership roles where we have become accustomed to that iconic Costner speech. And once again, we get that again, where the camera focuses on Harrison as he stands in front of his team and gives the pep talk of all pep talks to rile them up and get this damned spaceship, well, into space.
The other typecast is Jim Parsons as Katherine’s superior Jim Stafford. You know Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory? Well, the job that Stafford has in this film would be right up Sheldon’s alley and Parsons plays his character that reminds you of the annoying physicist from the TV sitcom. His character will all depend on your tolerance of Sheldon, which for me, has waned over the years and I grew tired of his schpiel very quickly.
Missteps aside, Hidden Figures is an immensely important film depicting the story of three young Black women working in high capacity jobs in a segregated state in the 60s. However, this film is more so about the lives and realities that most black people in the south had to deal with for a large portion of their lives. Hidden Figures is the story about the struggle people had to face through segregation and how that shaped them as people. The flaws in this movie are there and cannot be mitigated as they affected the tone of the film, but still otherwise a hearty recommendation.
We, The Film Lawyers, present Hidden Figures with a grade of B- (7.4/10).