Hidden Figures movie review: A feel good film that respects its audience’s intelligence
It’s been a while since we’ve had a ‘feel good’ movie without the trappings of a sub genre like emotional manipulation and schmaltzy execution. Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi is a feel good movie that respects its audience’s intelligence and offers enough historical and social commentary while still being an entertaining watch.
The film follows the trisecting lives of Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) who work at Langley Research Center as mathematicians doubling as supercomputers.
Katherine’s luck changes when she’s assigned to the Space Task team in charge of deploying Apollo rockets into space. Being the first black woman to be drafted into NASA, Katherine is faced with the downsides of segregation and unsubtle racism. Mary struggles to gain admission in a college course for being black and Dorothy is left to deal with being separated from her all black female team to go ahead in ranks.
The best thing about the film is how director Melfi never delves into over-dramatised commentary on racism in 1960s America. Most of the issues that Katherine faces are executed in a quirky fashion with just the tiniest tinge of drama to make their weight feel palpable.
In one of the film’s highlight scenes Katherine, who has to use the restroom but is not allowed to use the ‘white people’s toilet’ runs in the rain three kilometers away to use the ‘colored people’s bathroom’. The film therefore feels like an antidote to Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation which went out of its way to over-dramatise the plight of black people by fuzzing up facts.
Hidden Figures also does a good job of not going overboard with creative liberty on historical facts for the sake of telling an interesting movie story.
Aside from a few instances of jumbling up of the timelines, the film sticks pretty close to one of the most significant moments in NASA history. Katherine’s character is responsible for a seemingly small but critical recalibration of the rocket designed to fly Americans into space. It’s a significant moment as a black woman stands among a bunch of white men – a norm at that time – and kicks some serious butt. It’s hard not to keep yourself from clapping by the time the credits roll.
There’s interesting character dynamics between Katherine and her boss Harrison (Kevin Costner) the head of the Space Task who is initially uncaring towards the rampant racism in the office but later realises he needs to do something about it. There are sparks of really interesting banter in the relationship between these two characters and one wishes writer Allison Schroeder (Side Effects) went further into it.
On the negative side because the film focuses primarily on Katherine’s character, the subplots featuring Mary and Dorothy feel like add-ons that are pale in comparison. Apart from the hilarious and crowd-pleasing opening there’s very little interaction between the three ladies and you wish there was more of that in the film. There’s also another sliver featuring Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s husband which also adds little more than an unsatisfying emotional hook.
If you’re ready to ignore some of its misgivings, Hidden Figures is still a pretty enjoyable watch, and if you had the fortune of learning FORTRAN in school you’ll find the film a wonderful sendoff to the programming language.