Astronaut John Glenn died this month, a man who not only spent decades in the US Senate, but was also the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule. In tribute, US President Barack Obama noted that Glenn’s life “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.” Yet HIDDEN FIGURES is a reminder of some more terrestrial obstacles that needed to be overcome to reach those lofty heights.
Based on the nonfiction account by Margot Lee Shetterly, it recounts the story of the involvement of African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who calculated the trajectories for John Glenn’s historic Friendship 7, along with her contemporaries Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Katherine has been a mathematical genius from an early age, but the societal norms of 1960s American ensure that women of colour lack the opportunities for advancement that her NASA colleagues take for granted. “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line,” laments Henson’s would-be engineer Jackson.
In the light of the ongoing systematic racism and violence that the Black Lives Matter movement has protested globally, HIDDEN FIGURES is a timely and important reminder that institutionalised prejudice is something that is part of living memory. Director and co-writer (with Allison Schroeder) Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) fills the screen with symbols of this subjugation, from the opening encounter with a Southern cop to the “Colored Computers” sign that hangs above the leads. Every scene drips with constructed significance, and it’s a shame that Schroeder and Melfi’s script gets mired in sentimentalism more than once, a trait that undercuts the effectiveness of the trio of central performances.
Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all excellent in the central roles, with Monáe in particular crafting a fiery persona in only her second feature performance following the critically acclaimed Moonlight. Henson is the default lead for the film, and her career arc is well drawn and thoroughly interesting, but is hampered somewhat by the introduction of a mostly unneeded love story with ex-military type Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Rounding out the triptych, Spencer’s character might be designed for comedic relief, but her straight-down-the-line performance of one of the first programmers of Fortran is an essential lynchpin to the film.
The rest of the cast feel clumsily drawn and paper thin by comparison, especially the “white saviour” role that Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, regularly falls back on. Kirsten Dunst is equally one-note, a watered-down totem of the societal racism the leads encounter on a daily basis, while Jim Parsons is just a slightly surlier version of the nerd typecasting he’s settled into. (We also question a 1950s office environment where nobody lights up a single cigarette). HIDDEN FIGURES is still a fascinating story, mostly bolstered by the excellent lead casting, but one that feels more indebted to the conventions of Hollywood than it does to “spirit of discovery” these inspirational women engendered.