Arts movie review

Hidden Figures has a worthwhile message despite its flaws

Inspiring space-race era film tells the true story of three women who dared to succeed

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Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures.
Hopper Stone

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Rated PG
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If by the end of this review you only take one thing away, it should be this: go watch this film.

As a medium, film is intensely complex, weaving countless visual, auditory, and contextual threads together to make one finished product. Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is a puzzling mix of both good and bad that is hard to quantify with stars. Though it is a moving narrative based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, its translation into the medium of film does the inspiring true story no favors.

Hidden Figures follows the struggle of three African American women working for NASA in the 1960s. Even faced with rampant sexism and racism at work and in society, with dogged perseverance and a firm belief in themselves, they overcome barrier after barrier. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler. That our plucky protagonists will emerge victorious is no surprise in this feel-good dramatization of historical events. The narrative is driven not by suspense but by expectation and by the thrill of watching the immensely likeable characters succeed despite insurmountable odds.

Katherine Gobles Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) comprise the main trio of headstrong and capable women working in the segregated West Area Computers division of the NASA facilities. The film tracks each of their stories alongside that of the United States as NASA struggles to make the U.S. the first country to send a human into space. Johnson faces being the first African American woman to join prejudiced head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) in Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) Space Task Group, Jackson must fight for acceptance into an all-white school if she is to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer, and Vaughn goes head to head with Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst) as she seeks a long overdue and deserved promotion.

Henson, Spencer, and Monáe all give captivating performances, imbuing each of their respective characters with their own brand of courage and personality. These talented actresses bring an authenticity to their work that makes it easy to root for and become invested in the journey of the women on screen.

Unfortunately, despite the rich source material, Hidden Figures as a film lacks any real emotional weight. The audience’s reactions to what unfolds on screen are primarily intellectual, not visceral. They rely heavily on a logical and historical understanding of the societal circumstances and gross unfairness that the characters face and the conceptual appreciation of their successes, rather than on any functional enhancement that film as a medium might have provided.

Many scenes felt contrived and stiff with dialogue sounding either too cheesy or simply being too predictable. Paul Stafford, played by Parsons, is just one example of a flattened character whose one-dimensional presence as the disdainful superior offers little substance to the film beyond his role in inciting conflict. Though it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly these failings might originate from, a stilted screenplay seems the most likely explanation.  

The disconnect between subject matter and medium can be difficult to disentangle. In the case of Hidden Figures, the two seem to be at odds with one another. On one hand, the film as a medium of storytelling is a heavy-handed paint-by-numbers that paces itself like a feel-good Lifetime movie. On the other hand, the true story at the heart of the film is an ode to the human spirit and an anthem to perseverance in the face of difficulty. It’s about believing in yourself, being unafraid to face adversity, and having the courage to forge the path that you want, even if it’s unfamiliar and riddled with roadblocks.

Though it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide which of the two carries the most weight, I can only reiterate my own conclusions: that despite its passable packaging, Hidden Figures is an inspiring story with a powerful social, cultural, and personal relevance worth watching. Seriously, go watch this film.