Directed by Theodore Melfi.
2016. Rated PG, 127 minutes.
Taraji P. Henson
Katherine Goble (Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) are mathematicians working at NASA in 1961 in it's all-black department. Essentially, they spend their day double-checking calculations made by others. Their good friend Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, also works there. The US is in the midst of an intense space-race with Russia. After the Russians successfully put the first human being into space, NASA director Al Harrison (Costner) is pressured to step up his efforts to put America on top in this competition since it's widely believed the winner will position itself as the dominant superpower. This creates the need for help in the form of a numbers-cruncher in the department that works closest to him. Katherine is assigned to this spot, becoming the first African-American to become part of the Space Task Group. She has to deal with being talked down to by her immediate supervisor, Paul Stafford (Parsons), looked down upon by the rest of her new colleagues, constantly hounded by Harrison, and having to walk across NASA's large canvas just to use the restroom. Meanwhile, Dorothy is clearly one of the most knowledgeable people working there, but has almost no shot at becoming a supervisor. She also has to worry about her entire department being replaced by a computer, if the folks from IBM can ever get it working. Finally, Mary is trying to fight her way in to an engineering school. This is based on a true story, and yeah, there's a love story in there, too.
Various aspects of The Black Experience have been covered in 2016's filmography. While I don't think this is the best of those films, none of the others are this joyous and easy to watch. Though it deals with some heavy themes, and never treats them too lightly, Hidden Figures remains an upbeat story about underdogs. Every part of the production ensures this is the case. It's a brightly lit saunter through history, scored by a lively soundtrack with characters who aren't afraid to smile in the face of adversity. In fact, they prefer it to sulking and deep contemplation. They understand the world around them, but try valiantly to not let it weigh them down. Even when the situation calls for them to be serious, it's only for that moment. Their ground is firmly stood, or their point is thoroughly explained. They then go about the business of overcoming the long odds in front of them with a grin, a bit of sass, and a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Also helping to keep this an amusing ride is the fact our villains aren't life-threatening individuals. No one here seems likely to organize a lynch mob. Sure there is a good deal of racism on display. However, it's pretty clear that it's due to ignorance and preconceived notions shaped by society rather than any intentional malice. I say "intentional" because racism inherently comes with malice, but the bad guys here simply don't know any better. They subscribe to the prevailing theory of the day that blacks just aren't as capable as whites and behave accordingly. We get Paul Stafford constantly belittling Katherine as if that's just the way it was supposed to be. Meanwhile Vivian Mitchell (Dunst), the white supervisor in the building where Dorothy works, shares similar attitudes. She just exposes them in a much more passive-aggressive manner.
Despite the overwhelmingly cheerful tone of Hidden Figures, it never becomes corny. Expert work by the entire cast ensures this. Taraji P. Henson is radiant as Katherine. She mixes the grin, sass, and sarcasm I spoke of to a perfect blend. Her Katherine is a woman who would rather keep a low profile and let her work speak for itself, but isn't afraid to assert herself when necessary. This woman is the polar opposite of Henson's Cookie from TV's Empire, a woman externally built of sharp edges and fire protecting her soft heart. Katherine's core is where her fire rages while her external parts maintain a delicacy that hides it.
Octavia Spencer has drawn raves for her performance as Dorothy, and rightfully so. The woman can flat out act, and does another wonderful job of it. She brings a quiet authority to this role as she has a number of times in recent years. That said, I prefer the work turned in by singer, and cinematic newcomer, Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson. She lights up the screen whenever given the opportunity to do anything. Her transition from music videos to movies appears to be an effortless one. The camera loves her, and she dutifully loves it back without appearing to be anything other than natural. Jim Parsons pulls off the jerk, racist, and somewhat chauvinist supervisor part well. He is just a guy we dislike enough to groan every time his face appears. This is in perfect service to the rest of the film. Kirsten Dunst serves in a similar capacity as what is essentially his female counterpart. Hers is easily the most understated performance in the film and she makes it work. In what is basically a race-swap with a stereotypically black trope, Kevin Costner also shines. The trope is one I've written about many times before, The Magical Negro. This is a black character with some special ability (often magical, hence the name), yet who exists solely to enable the white protagonist either save the day or become a better person. Here, the special ability of the Costner character, the Magical Caucasian, if you will, is being in charge. He makes decisions no one else in the film can make, but cannot accomplish the task at hand alone.
The drawback to Hidden Figures is that it is wholly predictable. Even if you had no knowledge of the actual story the film is based on, or had somehow missed all of the marketing for it, the outcome is never in doubt. Every aspect of the movie is established in such a fashion we know how it's going to turn out. We get to see the hardships the characters have to go through, and marvel at them, but we never feel any real tension. It's territory we've tread before, without any new insights, nor the impact of startling imagery. The love story between Katherine and Jim Johnson (Ali) also feels preordained from the moment he shows up on the screen. The magic of the film is that we don't mind this, at all. We're happy letting it all wash over, delight, and inspire us.