The Daily Gamecock

Review: 'Hidden Figures' a powerful tale of heroism, victory without the melodrama

Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who are African-American women working at NASA. It was nominated for Best Picture. (20th Century Fox/TNS)
Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who are African-American women working at NASA. It was nominated for Best Picture. (20th Century Fox/TNS)

Movie: “Hidden Figures”

Director: Theodore Melfi

Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes

Wide Release: Jan. 6 

Rating: A

At first glance, Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” appears to be a typical film about overcoming struggle that will be shown in high school history classes 10 years from now. But Melfi’s nuanced script and three evocative performances from the film’s stars elevate the surprise box office hit to an Oscar-worthy film.

“Hidden Figures” follows three women that work at NASA during the early 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician, Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe, undoubtedly a scene-stealer, plays Mary Jackson. 

Each woman faces her own oppressor — for Katherine, it’s her boys'-club colleagues in the Space Task Group, headed by Jim Parson’s Paul Stafford. Dorothy is refused a promotion by her boss because of “the way things are” and Mary has to jump through loopholes and laws to become NASA’s first female engineer. 

Henson, known for playing the larger-than-life Cookie Lyon on “Empire,” opts for subtlety in the film. Her reserved and confident portrayal of Katherine Johnson is real and avoids all the trappings of potential melodrama. You feel her frustration and anger at the continual roadblocks her NASA coworkers continue to throw at her and feel relieved when she cannot take anymore of it.

The greatest moments of the film are the small scenes and conversations that happen between the climatic ones. Spencer’s subplot is one of preservation — of making sure she and her coworkers have a space at NASA after the introduction of computers. Spencer gives Dorothy a maternal edge but keeps reminding the audience and those who ignore her how smart and adaptable she is. Vaughan and Johnson’s fight for equality is not explosive or subversive, but they force their white counterparts at NASA to see them and respect their work. 

Weaved between the portrayals of friendship, oppression and mathematical theorizing, Katherine falls in love with Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali. While it’s nice to see a female lead be given a dynamic characterization of work, love and friendship, the lack of chemistry between Ali and Henson leaves their romance feeling dispensable.

The Space Race is also at the forefront of “Hidden Figures.” Katherine’s NASA boss, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, explains to a congressional committee that the Space Race is vital because staying ahead of Russia is the biggest threat to America. The subtle irony of Harrison’s speech pervades the film — the white NASA employees ignore the blatant racism and misogyny ripe in the space program in favor of hating the “commies.” And when Katherine forces her coworkers to face their ignorance and confront their prejudice it seems like she’s not only yelling at her colleagues, but the entire company and country.

The film is assisted by Pharrell Williams’ energetic and soulful soundtrack, featuring songs from Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige and Janelle Monáe. The carefully curated track list takes note of black lives in Virginia and the struggles of the early 1960s for all African-Americans, but Williams’ underscores those experiences with the same sense of hope and optimism the film exudes. The film’s theme song, “I See a Victory,” is an exuberant ode to overcoming struggles that perfectly encapsulates “Hidden Figures'” message.

“Hidden Figures” isn’t a masterful artistic film deep with metaphors or allegory — it has a clear purpose. Melfi sets out to educate and enlighten us, and he does so with gusto, humor and feeling — quite the opposite of the cold, logical math the movie revolves around.