In some respects, this feels very much like a paint by numbers biopic that takes us through the many paces of such a narrative. The rise, fall, conflict, and self-actualization of our heroes that navigates us to the film’s conclusion.
But this is also unequivocally a story that necessitated a telling for the very fact that stories like these have been hidden for decades — swept under the rug if you will. Because first and foremost Caucasians were usually the ones at the center of the master narrative of history and namely white males at that.
In one of my courses in university, the term of intersectionality would have undoubtedly cropped up in conversation right about now to denote a doubly marginalized group (African-American women). Feel free to consider the term if you are so inclined because there are others who can probably bring a lot more to the table on issues of gender and race and oftentimes those are very necessary conversations to entertain.
However, I am more interested in the actual story in question and so I will jump right to that topic. At its core, there are three women who you have probably never heard but that’s only a part of it. It’s that and the fact that they were integral cogs in something truly extraordinary.
Our first person of note Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who is promoted to the Space Task Group, given the pressure following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik and Johnson’s unreputed skill in analytical geometry. She moves from her own segregated division to an environment full of passive-aggressive bigotry and whites-only bathrooms. In her home life, she raises three daughters while falling in love with a handsome National Guardsman (Mahershala Ali).
The firecracker among her friends is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who has aspirations to finish her schooling so that she can become a full-fledged engineer. Lastly, is the sagely one, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who has seen a great deal of the world and continually shows tremendous qualities of leadership over her segregated branch which she leads with a self-possessed wisdom. One would gather these skills would apply well to any arena and so they do eventually.
For our parents’ generations events such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the Challenger Explosion left an indelible mark on society and it was all for the sake of exploring the great unknown of outer space. Those later triumphs and, yes, even the tragedies would not have come into being if it wasn’t for some of the unsung individuals who got John Glenn off the ground in 1962 as we desperately tried to counter Russia’s Sputnik successes.
There’s also a slightly refreshing reversal of the age-old supporting character archetypes where this film dares to put its white characters in secondary roles while still giving them a decent amount of importance in the overall trajectory of this narrative.
Kevin Costner is the most rewarding supporting character as the head of NASA who is looking for results more than anything and that causes him to push past the accepted walls of racial hierarchy not necessarily because he’s trying to make a social statement but because he wants to get the job done. Skin color has no bearing on whether or not someone is savvy and can get John Glenn into the wild blue yonder.
Jim Parsons part does not stretch the boundaries of his Sheldon Cooper image but it is underlined by a bit of prejudicial malice as is Kirsten Dunst’s turn which no doubt adds a touch of realism representative of the defacto bigotry of the era. Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams score of sorts while somehow anachronistic undoubtedly imbues these three women with a spark of energy following every step of progress they make with NASA.
The film’s decidedly punny title aside, Hidden Figures is still full of joy even if it’s only a minor pleasure as a film. Because in some instances it doesn’t seem to take its material all that seriously and sometimes that is more refreshing than a dour and self-important exploration. Still, it takes itself out of the running from among the greatest biopics for that very reason. It’s a bit too formulaic and probably too tongue-in-cheek with historical events. Certainly this cannot take away the full impact of this history or the enjoyment value of the film. We should do well do appreciate them both.