There’s something to be said for films that have genuinely good protagonists and a happy ending. Hidden Figures, at its bare bones, is just that. When done incorrectly, it can be perceived as formulaic; done well, however, it can give you something that brings forward the type of hope that is gained only after harsh trials.
Hidden Figures follows Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae on their journey as Calculators for NASA. Before super computers, the calculations to get astronauts into space were done by real people.The film does an exceptional job intertwining fiction and fact to tell a story that’s gone mostly untold until now. Though it does suffer from a romance angle that happened in real life but is mostly irrelevant to the story being told, it manages to not linger there and presents a film very much worth our attention, and an entertaining one at that.
Taraji P. Henson (Katherine), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy), and Janelle Monae (Mary) each bring a special sort of passion to the women that they depict. Though their personalities are all quite different, all three manage to be unapologetically black without falling into stereotypes that can run rampant in a film trying to depict the segregated ‘60s.
Writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi present a strong, loving community while spotlighting culture on both sides of the segregation line. The protagonists reflect fear, doubt, perseverance, and an unwavering togetherness. On the opposite side we see hate crimes and blatant racism, but even more than that, we see the quiet side of it too. White supremacy is obviously dangerous in any form, but casual, cultural racism often slips by unnoticed. Vivian Mitchell is the most obvious reference to this in her multiple scenes alongside Dorothy, but the only white character that manages to avoid it entirely is astronaut John Glenn.
Where Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and John’s stories are based on real people, characters like Paul Stafford and Al Harrison are solely fiction. Stafford may have fallen flat through the film, but brilliant and talented women of every creed and color get surpassed by mediocre men every day, so perhaps the character’s flatness was the point. In contrast, Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is a delight to watch. At the end of the day, he doesn’t give a damn about race, he just wants the numbers.
Hidden Figures doesn’t have the moral gray areas many people crave in both protagonists and plot, but is filled with parallels to modern day culture, which is where it really shines. The story is obviously one that needs to be told, but these parallels take it from a movie set in the ‘60s to an arc that maintains relevance in an age where white supremacy and sexism are supposed to be dead but clearly aren’t.
This is what makes Hidden Figures a must-see. The story embellishments tied in with the history of these extraordinary women weave together to make a film that’s actually important. Everyone knows that John Glenn made it to space, and we all know that he makes it home just fine. His story gets told. The women of Hidden Figures? Their story is new to most of us, and stories where marginalized people overcome seemingly impossible hurdles are still desperately needed in 2017.