Films like Hidden Figures, which are “based on true events,” can range from saccharine reproductions of true stories to frank portrayals of real-life heroism and triumph. Because their basis in reality (however loose it may be) tends to capture audiences’ attention, Hollywood often turns to such material to deliver a box office hit, especially in the fall when dramas tend to perform overall. Yet, because of the varying degrees of success, it’s hard to tell when a new release presents a true story in a satisfying, inspiring way or is merely going through the motions to placate audiences and score a tidy profit. Thankfully, Hidden Figures leans far more toward the former approach.
Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film – directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) – stars Taraji P. Henson as former child prodigy Katherine Goble, who works in the computing department for NASA in the early 1960s. It’s her job, along with friends and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), to calculate the launch codes that the nation is depending on to launch the first successful American space mission. Establishing the tenuous state of race relations, the film follows the trio on their parallel journeys to advance within NASA and overcome the adversity of their era.
Henson may be best known nowadays for her role as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, but those who only know her from that show may be surprised to see the vulnerability and range she demonstrates here. In fact, Henson has been delivering standout performances on the big screen dating back to 2000s releases like Baby Boy and Hustle & Flow. Nevertheless, her work in Hidden Figures may be her best to date.
As the meek but brilliant Katherine, she becomes more and more headstrong as the film progresses, leading to some scenes that may as well have “for your consideration” flashing above them. In fact, Henson is already the subject of brewing Oscar buzz and could earn her second nomination for the film. It certainly helps that Hidden Figures stays sharply focused on her professional life, devoting only a handful of scenes to a budding romance with a dashing military man (Mahershala Ali).
Although Henson is the de facto lead of Hidden Figures, the film boasts a strong cast across the board. Spencer is highly effective in a subtler and less juicy role than her Oscar-winning turn in The Help a few years back, and Monáe – a recording artist who made her live-action film debut in the recent Moonlight – is delightful as the most daring of the three. Then there’s Kevin Costner as Katherine’s no-nonsense boss, and Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as a pair of NASA workers who stand in the way of the women’s progress. Yet, while all these performances are solid, the true strength is in the delicate narrative of Hidden Figures.
The script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder focuses closely on the subversive prejudice of the early 1960s, dovetailing into a slew of both women’s rights and racial segregation issues along the way. Yet, it never does so in a particularly overbearing way, instead opting to take a more optimistic route. Hidden Figures is more concerned with the strength of the human spirit to persist against unfortunate circumstances than wallowing in the cruelty of it all.
As a historical drama, its story, much like its central trio, never backs down from justice but is also wholesome enough that parents may especially wish to to watch it with their daughters, no matter what the color of their skin may be. The message of Hidden Figures is about not discounting untapped potential – either in yourself or in others – simply because of some wrongheaded societal norm.
While Hidden Figures hits many of the beats one would expect, Melfi’s film strikes a delicate balance of injecting levity within the character-based historical drama that propels the story forward. At a time when the nation is more divided than ever before though, Hidden Figures manages to bring a powerful air of positivity and progress to the big screen, accompanied by some appropriately upbeat original music by Pharrell Williams (who also produced). The common refrain throughout the film that the central characters’ adversity amid a segregated, restrictive society is “just the way it is” underscores the significance of standing up for what’s right regardless of the status quo. Hidden Figures is more than a filmmaking triumph; it very well may be exactly the film we need right now.
With an air of optimism and hope for the future, Hidden Figures is a balm for the current political landscape, inspiring audiences to stand up for their ideals and continue striving forward.