Films readily labelled as crowd-pleasers are often written off as simplistic, or undeserving of any emotional heights to which they dare to climb. Critics and moviegoers alike assert that their broader appeal often implies a lack of sophistication. It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe this knee-jerk presumption to director Thomas Melfi’s Hidden Figures. However, director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures refutes this presupposition neatly, proving to be both entertaining and nuanced. While delving into the intricacies of its protagonists’ experiences in segregated Virginia, we’re left uplifted by its celebration of black female triumph, which in turn brings to light an inherent predicament within the broader patriotic narrative.
It’s 1960s America and the Space Race is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. In the thick of it are Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)—three brilliant yet underutilised “coloured computers”1 in a segregated area in NASA’s Langley Research Centre. When Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth sends NASA’s heads of department into a frenzy, personnel supervisor Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) approaches Dorothy’s team in search of an analytic geometry expert whose work could help launch astronaut John Glenn into space. Dorothy immediately nominates Katherine to fill the vacancy in the corresponding Space Task Group, while directing Mary to the team developing the Mercury capsule prototype.
Their new roles are as much exhilarating opportunities as they are daunting challenges. Mary is compelled by her supervisor (Olek Krupa) to enrol in the engineer training program—no mean feat, as it also entails becoming NASA’s first black female engineer. Despite support from the Task Group’s preoccupied manager Dr. Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s work is persistently hampered by lead engineer Paul Stafford (The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, less irritating here than simply bigoted.) Dorothy’s circumstances are no less arduous: after her request for a well-deserved promotion is dismissed, she is faced with attempting to secure a future at NASA for herself and her other girls.
Avoiding a heavy-handed depiction of the oppressive systems at work in NASA, Melfi has us witness our heroines in all aspects of their lives. At work, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costume design emphasises Katherine’s place: a vibrant suit, the sole spot of colour in a room shared with white men in rolled-up white shirts and black slacks. At her local church’s barbeque, however, she confronts scepticism. Military beau Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, fresh from his mesmerising turn in Moonlight) is bemused by her high-stakes NASA duties: “They let women handle that sort of…?” Not only a reminder of how pervasive sexism was and is, this and other moments clearly articulate that these women’s experiences occurred specifically at the intersection of their racial identity and their gender.
At the film’s very climax, grainy archival footage of the real rocket launch is intercut with close-ups of Katherine’s face, onlookers from the street (including Mary and Dorothy), and astronaut John Glenn within the rocket’s confines. Peter Teschner’s astute editing sends a clear message: these women contributed to a brighter future, broadening the horizon of what was possible for all humankind. 2
Yet the stirrings of patriotism at the heart of the Space Race run up against the harsh realities of the civil rights era. Mary seeks to undertake a mathematical bridging course at an all-white high school, essential for her engineering career aspiration, but local law forbids this, forcing her to bring her case before a court. Dorothy must guarantee her future and that of her department by learning, covertly and without permission, to program the new IBM apparatus. Most farcically, Katherine is given mathematical calculations by lead engineer Stafford with some of the equations blacked out by pen. Hidden Figures celebrates its protagonists’ achievements yet never fully confronts this quandary. We’re never given a window of insight into this emotional dilemma, perhaps the film’s chief omission in its glossing over of events. The audience is left to grapple with the complexity of the women who contributed their genius thanklessly for the sake of their country and for generations of black, female engineers, programmers and mathematicians.
Hidden Figures does get its emotional pacing just right. Its triumphant and its tearjerker moments, appealing to the most basic form of moviegoing empathy, go beyond the schmaltzy. They retain their poignancy thanks to Melfi’s powerful trio of leading ladies and their deft interpretation of the (occasionally on-the-nose) dialogue. When Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell says to Dorothy, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” the latter cuts her off with a sardonic quip: “I know you probably believe that.” The scenes are infused with an undercurrent sparked by the dialogue and accented by each protagonist’s defining (yet not tokenistic) trait: Katherine’s strained humility, Dorothy’s ingenuity, Mary’s tenacity. Dorothy and Vivian’s quick exchange accomplishes as much as a heartrending, furious monologue from Katherine. Cinematographer Mandy Walker also takes her cue from this juxtaposition of the overt and the subtle. She compels us to feel Dorothy’s quiet frustration, standing alone in a NASA corridor after being dismissed for a managerial position, with a slow, almost despondent tracking out of the scene. With Walker’s shrewd camerawork, too, the film’s careful balance of sentiment is kept in check.
The ultimate value of Hidden Figures is couched in its ability to empower the viewer; it occasionally indulges in populist cinema’s most frequent vice of uninhibited emotion but these moments, and our reactions, are always earned.
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