Hidden Figures – Opening Sequence
We’d been waiting for Hidden Figures for a long time – and it did not disappoint. The story of three of the African-American mathematician women who played a key role in the development of NASA’s space program starred Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae – working from a script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi. It’s the narrative and directorial choice of opening sequence that creates this ‘Best Movie Moment,’ though.
The film starts with the three women – Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monae) – on their way to work at NASA. The car they are sharing has broken down, though, and we meet them just as they’re debating their next course of action and working to fix the vehicle.
Firstly, it’s the perfect way to introduce these characters, as they’re all vibrant, well-written women whose differences and similarities are effortlessly and elegantly teased out into the open through their dialogue. Secondly – in the most subtle of ways – the scene is constructed so that we suddenly realize that we’re seeing something rarely included in theatrically released movies – black women having a conversation with each other. By simply opening the film with a conversation in this way, Melfi demonstrates the absurdity of its scarcity elsewhere in the medium.
Thirdly, as the scene progresses, and a white police officer arrives to investigate the reason for them having stopped by the roadside, the distressing nature of the wider reality in which these women live is deftly revealed. This is accomplished by a tonal shift that ripples through the performance of each actress, the music, sound, camera-work, and dialogue in a matter of seconds – taking us from a group of characters comfortably chatting among themselves, to the same group experiencing a combination of fear and resentment at the behaviour of a white man.
The sequence culminates in the police officer having to be convinced by these three women that they do, in fact, work for NASA, because he initially refuses to believe it’s possible. We feel the tone shift once more as he concedes that the three mathematicians are telling the truth, and he begins to treat them differently – helping them get to work. The entire thing unfolds over mere minutes – but we’ve already been on an emotional rollercoaster ride that promises to drive us through the rest of the movie. This opening sequence is indeed a masterclass in cinematic storytelling.