Houston, do you read me: NASA employed black people in its infancy during the early Sixties. What’s more, NASA’s first major project, Mercury, probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without three black female “computers,” or mathematicians, whose efforts literally put John Glenn and Friendship 7 into orbit. The result was a serious boost in American morale during the race against the Soviets into space and a boon to the Space Program under President Kennedy. So, with its historically significant and truly enlightening subject matter, what most caught me off guard about Hidden Figures is its tone, which is light, upbeat, cute, and often comical. While not in itself a bad thing, it’s not what I expected.
Unfortunately, that’s about all Hidden Figures offers that I didn’t expect. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this film; I did. It’s a great story about remarkable people who actually lived. According to one subject, their real stories are not far off from this film (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-hidden-figures-katherine-johnson-20170109-story.html). Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a recently widowed math whiz who works for NASA in Virginia, as a bookish nerd complete with glasses that keep sliding down her nose. She and her coworkers, smart and sassy Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and fiery and coquettish Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), quietly but forcefully demonstate their worth in an environment that doesn’t treat them as equals. While Katherine lugs binders and a calculator back and forth between her desk and the “colored” rest room clear across campus to figure out arcs and other shit I sure can’t, Dorothy teaches herself how to operate the new IBM that not even IBM technicians can set up correctly and Mary pushes her way into engineering classes at night in an all white, all male school. Director Theodore Melfi does a really nice job demonstrating institutionalized racism and sexism through characters who may not have anything against black people or women—as administrator Vivian Michael (Kristen Dunst) curtly tells Dorothy in one scene and unwilling research partner, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), makes clear to Katherine in another scene by redacting her name from a joint report they both wrote—but don’t recognize the issue.
Despite its merits, I found Hidden Figures to be slightly more sophisticated than a Lifetime movie. Melfi, who with Allison Schroeder adapted the screenplay from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, takes a pretty basic approach to the material. It’s so easy—obvious, even—to gage where the story is headed. John Glenn (Glen Powell) sings Katherine’s praises while a love interest develops for her in handsome Col. Jim (Mahershala Ali). So cute. Hidden Figures gets into civil rights issues, but only on a superficial level. There are a few overdone Oscar grabs, like a scene between Katherine and her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), that ends with him smashing the sign outside the “colored” ladies’ rest room, but no true show stoppers. Frankly, though, most of the actors here have appeared in better movies. Too bad, because this could’ve been a great film instead of just an okay one. Hidden Figures doesn’t quite do its trailblazing subjects justice.
(AMC River East) C+