A true-life story that should have been told long ago finally receives its deserved attention on the big screen.
The most amazing thing about Hidden Figures is that its story has somehow remained untold at least to a wide mainstream audience until now. How did we get through school, especially during Black History Month, without learning about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson?
Three African American women — two mathematicians, and the other an engineer — worked for NASA during the 1960s, while the United States was in a race with the Soviet Union to get into space, and it’s taken until 2017 (or late 2016) to bring that story to the masses? With no disrespect to George Washington Carver and everything he did with peanuts as an inventor — hey, I am a huge fan of peanut butter — but this is something I would have loved to learn about in school. Maybe that will change now, and perhaps it’s even more important as we try to get more young women interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. (I may be speaking as an uncle with two little nieces. Just a bit.)
Seriously, though, Hidden Figures is a great story which is long overdue for a movie that an entire family can watch together and can perhaps also be shown in classrooms on special occasions. This would have been an ideal movie to be in theaters during the Christmas holiday — which it was in some markets, but went into wide release on Jan. 6. That feels like kind of a miss for Fox, but perhaps the studio was worried about getting lost in the Rogue One wave, or perhaps even Passengers (though there was nothing to worry about there).
Actually, Fox’s strategy may have paid off well as Hidden Figures finished No. 1 at the box office this past weekend, finally nudging Rogue One out of the top spot. So perhaps the studio knew exactly what it was doing, offering a feel-good film with wider audience appeal that didn’t involve spaceships or wasn’t based on a previously existing property. Unless you count history as a previously existing property that can be adapted into a feature film.
One thing that the script by director Theodore Melfi (and Allison Schroeder) does well is essentially drop us right into the story without feeling the need to tell all of the history that led up to the time covered in the film. There’s a brief prologue in which we see that Katherine Goble is a brilliant math prodigy growing up in West Virginia who exceeded every limit that the county and state tried to place on educating African American children. However, though her intelligence opened doors for her, she still needed help from educators and family along the way to realize her potential.
That’s a prevalent theme throughout the story, actually. Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson, Empire) is far too smart to be relegated to simple desk work and correcting colleagues’ numbers. But she needs some people to believe in her as well. As she displays her aptitude and tireless work ethic trying to get Project Mercury launched, it becomes easier for everyone involved to just step out of the way, acknowledge Goble’s brilliance, ignore outdated perceptions and protocols, and accept that it doesn’t matter what her color or gender is.
That does leave Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) to play the figurative bad guys as the uptight white people of the story who constantly overlook Goble’s work and talents in favor of conventional thinking. Parsons’ role seems particularly unfortunate, as the script doesn’t allow for much nuance with his character. Is he a racist who doesn’t want to see a black person succeed — or surpass him — in the flight research department? Is he a sexist who believes women shouldn’t be anything more than secretaries or housewives? Or is he just an arrogant mathematician who believes his work shouldn’t be questioned and that he should be the star of the operation?
All of the above could be true, and perhaps the story does allow for that. But on its surface, this seems like a particularly thankless role for Parsons, arguably representing the mindset of an entire society at the time.
Fortunately, Parsons’ character — nor Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group charged with successfully getting U.S. astronauts into space and returned home safely — aren’t the only ones who underestimate Goble along the way. That also applies to the movie’s love story, in which Goble and Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, continuing the finest year in pop culture) strike up a friendship that becomes a romance. Johnson is immediately attracted to Goble’s strength and intelligence, but can’t help but unwittingly dismiss her accomplishments because she’s an African American woman. Like most everyone else in the story, however, Johnson quickly learns the error of his ways and realizes that Goble is a force that shouldn’t be denied.
Yes, many parts of Hidden Figures are predictable and you can see how several scenes are set up, either in the script or through imagery. But you won’t care, because these characters and their story is so satisfying to follow. It’s impossible not to root for Goble, Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Jackson (Janelle Monae) because they’re brilliant and strong, and we’re supposed to be better than what they suffered through as a country. There are parts intended to make you angry, to remind you of the struggles African Americans and women had to deal with during the Civil Rights era of the late-1950s and early 1960s. How could such brilliant minds constantly be frustrated and denied by an ignorant society and rules meant to obstruct them at nearly every turn? Yet it takes special people to keep on fighting and eventually persevere.
The movie also provides a reminder — perhaps more resonant these days than ever, given what’s happening in the country — of what can be accomplished when we work together toward a common objective and put differences aside. Harrison is initially clueless about the racism Goble faces in their workplace, but once he’s made aware of it (in one of the film’s best scenes), he helps to eliminate those barriers. Because they interfere with progress and too much is at stake, particularly human lives. All that other stuff doesn’t matter. Someone else who realizes this is John Glenn (played as almost too good to be true by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some). He has no use for racism and can see where the culture is going. But most importantly, he just wants the best person working on the numbers to get his spacecraft into orbit and bring him back safely.
Those who saw 1983’s The Right Stuff might be reminded of that film, and not just because Glenn, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom are characters in the story (albeit in much smaller roles). Hidden Figures is a movie about what can be overcome, what can be achieved, and the feeling that virtually anything is possible, even if it’s some competition with another world superpower that provides the motivation. It’s a story that everyone should watch, will undoubtedly enjoy, and was far overdue in receiving its proper due. The fact that the movie is doing well at the box office means that audiences are responding to something a bit more inspirational and aspirational than what’s largely being offered in theaters these days. There’s a reason this feels so refreshing and hopefully, even more people are drawn to a film that deserves your attention.
And just in case you need a reminder, the movie is called Hidden Figures, not “Hidden Fences.”