Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Running Time: 127 mins
Hidden Figures is an American film about the true story of Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman working at NASA in the early 1960s, whose incredible maths skills led her to play an integral role in some of the Space Race’s most important moments.
Whilst this isn’t an all-time classic, nor is it the most innovatively-made film, the great thing about Hidden Figures is that it brings an almost completely unknown story to life, just as its title suggests. Set within two of the 20th Century’s most fascinating periods, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, the film is a really interesting historical watch, complete with some excellent performances that bring its central characters to life, making for an enjoyable two hours as well.
Let’s start with a bit more about the story. Set at the beginning of the 1960s, as the battle between the US and USSR to reach space first was starting to reach fever pitch, the film tells the story of three black women who were involved in NASA operations at the time.
The two side stories, centring on Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), are pretty interesting, and often provide a nice and enjoyable break from the central story. That’s the story that focuses on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and her efforts to break the stigma towards both women and African-Americans working at one of the highest levels in NASA, but principally to help with the calculations to send a man into orbit.
If you’re a maths, astronomy or history buff, then that central story is full of fascinating details that you probably knew nothing about. I was massively surprised to see how significant Johnson was in orchestrating one of NASA’s most important missions in the 1960s, having heard nothing about her in the history books, whilst the way her genius maths and science skills are portrayed hugely impressed me.
But the great thing about Hidden Figures is that it’s not just about calculations and rocketships, because it keeps it feet firmly on the ground when it comes to the story. Yes, there’s so much to learn about Johnson’s role in a historical event, but the reason that that’s interesting is because we get a great look into her and the people around her’s lives.
When the film looks over to the characters’ home lives and relationships, it doesn’t take away from the entertainment and interest that the central story provides, but works wonders in making the characters more than just names on the pages of history. The story of the characters’ personal lives is a very heartfelt one, and brilliantly humanises them all as they take part in such a large operation, making it a delight to follow and will them on from start to finish.
What’s more is that the film also portrays the Civil Rights Movement and segregation in the USA a little differently to what we’re used to seeing. Rather than fighting against discrimination being the central focus of the story, it was nice to see that the characters work to combat that problem through being brilliant in their own lives. As such, it’s a smaller and more contained chapter of the Civil Rights Movement, but giving that to us without too much melodrama makes the film feel wonderfully fresh.
Beyond the story, I was also impressed by the performances in Hidden Figures. Taraji P. Henson is effortlessly likable as Katherine Johnson, and holds her own against the likes of Kevin Costner brilliantly. Octavia Spencer is as charismatic as ever, and Janelle Monáe makes for some interesting and entertaining moments along the way.
On the whole, this is a very interesting and entertaining film, but the reason that I don’t feel I’ll always remember it so fondly is because of the direction. This is a biographical drama, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was incredibly formulaic in its delivery of the story. Fascinating it may be, but there wasn’t much in the way of innovative directing. That really would have made this film stand out for me, so it was a bit of a disappointment.
Still, I had a great time with Hidden Figures. Its historically fascinating and overlooked story is its main attraction, whilst the film’s look at the characters on a smaller scale in relation to the Civil Rights Movement is the freshest thing about it. With strong performances throughout, and competent albeit slightly underwhelming direction from Theodore Melfi, there’s a lot to learn about and have fun with in Hidden Figures, which is why I’m giving it a 7.6.