By Ethan Magee
Hidden Figures (2016) is a film that could best be described as “refreshingly familiar”. The story isn’t told in any groundbreaking way, but it’s a story worth telling, especially these days. It’s very endearing and triumphant in the best ways and it doesn’t try to shove a message in your face, which is the least we can hope for from award season films.
Hidden Figures follows three black women who work at NASA as mathematicians called “computers”: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé). It turns out that NASA hired a good deal of black women as computers to help work on getting John Glenn into space, but they worked in a small basement room in a building half a mile away from the main compound, where the director of the space task group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) worked closely with the white male computers in figuring out more crucial math involved in the launch. The three women in the film are also friends outside of their jobs, and we see how the patriarchy and active civil rights movement motivate them to gain due recognition at NASA and bureaucratic prestige during the space race.
Without a doubt, the film serves as an acting showcase and I thankfully was delighted across the board. The dialogue is very cheesy and dramatic at times, but never prevents anyone from giving a believable and endearing performance. I could tell the Mary Jackson getting drunk in her friend’s kitchen was the same one having a tender moment with her husband and the same one giving a passionate, if dramatically worded, defense of why she should attend an all white school. Speaking of which, this was my first time seeing Janelle Monaé act and she absolutely kills it, and the same goes for Taraji Henson. Spencer does as well as expected and Costner surprises with one of his funnier and more captivating performances in a while.
The acting is absolutely what makes this movie worthwhile. The characters themselves are not all that complex, but being able to feel like they’re real people made me care much more about what they went through and made the slower-paced character moments more enjoyable as well as necessary. The cinematography is also very eye catching and well done. Every angle and lighting choice felt like a clever addition to the story and not like the director of photography was showing off. I never felt like I was getting preached to either, which is an all too familiar trend in Oscar bait films. There are still a few instances of white bravery against prejudice that are played up more than they should be, like First-American-In-Space John Glenn being the only astronaut who goes over to shake the hands of the black women and Director Harrison taking down the “Colored Only” bathroom sign. These moments, along with the fact that the film is directed by a white guy, harm the strength of the film’s themes and longevity. Otherwise, Hidden Figures is a worthwhile film to see. It doesn’t let the self importance of the historical event get in the way of these women’s story, and it provides much needed diversity in the kinds of stories told in American film, and paying to see it is the best way to not only get more films like this made, but also have a good time at the theater.
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