Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures throws the light of recognition onto unsung heroes of NASA’s “Space Race” against their Soviet counterparts: the female African American mathematicians they employed as “computers”.
Though already a darling of the 2017 awards season, the movie takes such a broad brush to its subject matter as to strike an oddly sterile, homogenised tone. Fittingly, it wins through by virtue of the three powerhouse performances at its core. With serene swagger, Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe delight as young, gifted and black employees at Langley Research Centre, battling the oppressive segregation of 1960s Virginia in order to excel in their individual fields.
While her colleagues plough separate furrows in the disciplines of software and aeronautical engineering, primary focus is given to the rise of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson) through the ranks of the “Space Task Group” aiming to make astronaut John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. Henson expertly portrays the quiet, proud determination with which Katherine negotiates both the bewildering calculations her job entails, and the myriad barriers placed in her path by an inherently racist (and, for that matter, sexist) working culture.
Melfi does well in imparting a sense of history: with authentic 60s vehicles, fashion, and music, the film is awash with period detail. There’s also neat use of archive news footage, and especially of the aspirational speeches by JFK, which – the movie seems to posit – served to unite a divided nation under the romantic banner of space exploration.
There are moments where the civil rights narrative has been sanitised, as if to avoid making white audiences feel too uncomfortable. In an otherwise by-numbers tale of triumph over adversity, the “white knighting” by Task Force supremo Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is incongruous. The moment he tears down the signs indicating the separate restrooms for black staff is an oddly jarring moment of glory by a fictional character over a problem that never existed at NASA.
Despite its almost cynical approach in targeting the heartstrings of academy judges, Hidden Figures still has enough going for it to stand up to the attention it’s earning, and to make it easy to recommend to those seeking some diverting family entertainment with an upbeat message.
Hidden Figures is released in the UK on 17th February 2017.
Watch the trailer for Hidden Figures here: