Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Rousing and crowd pleasing, "Hidden Figures" is a well written and very well acted drama following the stories of three black women who made a mark on NASA during the early years of the space program. Typically, when Hollywood movies aim to be inspirational, they often end up coming off as maudlin, but Theodore Melfi's film is an irresistible period piece that manages to be an uplifting and thoughtful story of the civil rights era.

As the picture opens, the film's three leads - Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) all work in the computing section - that is, the colored computing section - of NASA in Virginia. Despite Katherine's brilliance at math, Dorothy's obvious managerial skills and Mary's engineering abilities, the women aren't given the respect or opportunities they deserve because they are black women in the south in the early 1960s.

But when a position opens up to work under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the fictional leader of the team that plans to send John Glenn orbiting around the earth, it is determined that Katherine is the best person for the job, so she lands a seat in the all-white and all-male room where the plans for the orbit are being hatched.

Meanwhile, Mary wants to take a night class at a local segregated school so that she can qualify to become an engineer at NASA, so she decides to take her case to court, while Dorothy combats casual racism as she attempts to officially become a manager since she actually performs managerial duties without being credited with the title. To do so, she butts heads with her boss (Kirsten Dunst) who, like many whites during that era, very likely didn't consider themselves racists, but also didn't feel comfortable seeing blacks being elevated in the workplace.

There are a number of subplots - most of which are handled well and don't feel as if they are crowding for attention - including Mary's attempts to get her husband to appreciate her struggle to attend night classes, Katherine's burgeoning romance with a military man (Mahershala Ali, always great) and Dorothy's being forced to explain to her sons why the law isn't always right after she isn't allowed to search for a book in the whites-only section of the library.

While the film's writing is strong and the sequences involving John Glenn's orbit are exciting, it's the performances that make the movie work so well. Henson gives a commanding performance as the shy - but gradually confident - Katherine, while Monae is the liveliest of the bunch as the occasionally smart assed Mary. Spencer and Ali are both solid and Costner delivers the type of understated supporting work that probably won't attract awards notice, but is deserved of it.

"Hidden Figures" is an irresistible crowd pleaser and it couldn't have come at a better time. Following an election season of nonstop sexism and bigotry, here is a film showing that the history of innovation in the United States is much more diverse than people may have been taught to believe. It combines a potent civil rights story with a tale of the space race that makes for a highly enjoyable viewing experience, one that was actually cheered by the audience with which I saw the picture.

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