- Hidden Figures (2017)
We meet Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson on the road, trying to repair a car. When a policeman tries to intervene, they turn the situation around – and we get the very first look at their personalities. Dorothy is outspoken and doesn’t take any gibberish from people, Katherine is clever and positive, and Mary steals the show with her witty comebacks. They work very well in the rare moments together – and showcase even more personality in their own subplots.
Although the girls are connected – they work together and hang out a lot, the individual stories are drawn with confidence and tangled with accuracy. Katherine moves to another division, checking the calculations of Paul Stafford in an important operation that is to launch an American into space – a significant step in the USSR-US space war. Mary needs to prove that there’s a reason for her to attend an all-white male college to progress as the first black engineer at NASA. Dorothy fights with her boss to get a fair pay and official title for the job she’s already doing – and helps the team of “calculators” to adapt to the computer era by teaching them about the massive IBM devices, the first computers.
Hidden Figures changes the tone for the films that speak about the civil rights in the 1950s. There have been so many films that touch upon the topic – Selma a few years ago, Loving recently. But Theodore Melfi of St Vincent fame takes a light-hearted approach to a serious topic. His film decides to introduce a little known story to the audience by keeping the positive tone all the way throughout… and adding a whole lot of sass. The change in how the story is told makes this film deliver a fresh point of view – and connects dramatic moments with well-timed comedy excellently.
The leading trio are absolutely wondrous. With a lot of grace and humour, they hit at gender and race stereotypes. Janelle Monae as Mary is a discovery of the award season, and this film, alongside her supporting role in Moonlight, establishes her position as an actress, adding up to her music career. Whenever she appears, she brings the chuckle-worthy lines along. That’s how she proves that she’s a great actress, too, handling comedy as well as the depth of indie characters.
Taraji P. Henson creates her patient and sweet Katherine – but the moments where she roasts her suitor (Mahershala Ali, also in Moonlight and Free State of Jones) over the bad choice of words regarding women, or a storm of a speech she makes when her lengthy toilet breaks, forced by the “colored” and ”white” bathroom divisions, get discovered show her as no less feisty than her friends. Octavia Spencer adds even more power to the trio – be it by her argument with a librarian who refuses to lend her a book because it doesn’t belong to the racially sifted section of the bookshelf, or discussions with her boss leading to an ultimate triumph.
The antagonists have somewhat of an appeal of high school bullies here. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) disagrees just for the sake of it, and comes up with new racist tricks to hit at the genius of his new co-worker. A similar character is played by Kirsten Dunst, Dorothy’s supervisor who refuses to acknowledge her input. But even exaggerated and a little caricatured portraits make sense when the girls take it all, winning triumphantly like the cool nerdy chick gang they are, completing the circle. There are also two supporting roles that need a mention: Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the leader of the top-secret programme and Katherine’s boss, and Olek Krupa portraying a Polish-Jewish engineer Karl Zielinski who lifts Mary’s spirits.
Because Hidden Figures challenges the perspective which a lot of films about the topic take, it can certainly entertain and educate at once – and that’s certainly a vivid goal for the arts in the modern times. Appealing to the mainstream audience, it repels the stereotypes and brings the inspiring characters to life with a human portrayal that’s utterly charming.