Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
It’s nearly impossible to find a movie designed for adults that happens to be rated PG. And a good, entertaining movie, that’s not overtly religious? Forget about it.
At least, that’s been true until now.
“Hidden Figures,” the new movie opening this weekend that tells the story of the black women who were vital to NASA’s early space program, is an entertaining, important, surprisingly funny movie that’s perfect for the whole family. Propelled by some excellent acting, particularly on the part of the three leads, the movie offers a fun, compelling story that might even inspire you to pick up a history book once you’ve left the theater.
The movie follows three black women who work as computers for NASA, doing the heavy calculations required for space travel before electronic computers were invented to do them. Though all of the computers seem to be women – they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else in the program – the black women were segregated into a building on the far-side of campus, not allowed to use the white bathrooms, and were always the back of the line when it came to promotions or any extra responsibilities.
The main characters of “Hidden Figures,” however, are all trailblazers – Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) was part of the team who sent the first man into orbit around Earth, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) fought to become the first engineer at NASA, and Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan) ended up proving herself smarter than some of the best minds NASA had to offer.
Even if it had no other merits, the movie would be important solely because it tells a story hardly anyone has heard before. I consider myself fairly aware of history, and I had absolutely no idea who these women were and how important they were to the space race. These are portions of history we need to shine a light on, stat, and I’m sure there are more out there to make movies about.
Normally, however, calling a movie “important” means it will be gut-wrenching and possibly also deadly dull. “Hidden Figures,” on the other hand, is charming, enough so that it will hopefully draw in audience members who wouldn’t normally watch historical films. Even children will be safe watching this movie, and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll even enjoy it.
Though the movie is fun, inspirational and neatly structured, it also manages to incorporate at least part of the racism and sexism the women dealt with. Henson has to face a ton of outright animosity from the men she worked with, particularly one of the team leaders (played by Jim Parsons) and unthinking racism/sexism even from well-meaning men played by Kevin Costner and Mahershala Ali. Monae takes on the entirety of NASA with fierceness and poise, and Spencer gets the best line out of the whole movie dealing with Kirsten Dunst’s racism.
Still, the movie’s portrayal is undoubtedly cleaner and neater than the actual reality, Racism is horrible and completely pervasive, as is sexism, and these women had to face both every single day of their lives. Given what I know of humanity, the idea that the white people who surrounded them would come as far as they did, especially as quick as they did, strikes me as highly unlikely.
Hollywood, however, has long cleaned up history, and this kind of tidying up on a movie this good is hardly one of the worst things in the world. Anything it took to help get “Hidden Figures” out into the world is fine by me, and I hope people keep doing it.