My Rating: 7 out of 10
Like 2014’s Imitation Game, Hidden Figures tells the stories of historical figures that most people never learned in school. Hence, the title. In this case, the film portrays the story of three extremely intelligence African-American women that work as “human computers” (mathematicians who calculated complex equations before the machines we know as computers came into use), who played pivotal roles in helping NASA get John Glenn into Earth orbit during the Friendship 7 mission.
These women are: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae). While all three women helped on the Friendship 7 mission, Katherine Johnson made pivotal calculations and subsequently worked on the Apollo 11 mission. In addition, they broke racial and gender boundaries at a time when the USA was right in the middle of the civil rights movement. For example, Dorothy was the first African-American to work as a head of personnel at the agency that would become NASA. Yet, despite all these accomplishments, most Americans are unaware of their names.
As someone who loves history, I was fascinated by the subject of this film once I saw the first preview. It seems that, in the last few years, these sorts of movies are beginning to appear more often. Just this year, I saw Free State of Jones, which told the story of another fascinating part of American history that is never taught in school. I think movies like these are important since they provide us with a deeper look into popular historical events and show us new facets of things that we already know a lot about. Just a few months before seeing Hidden Figures, I watched an episode of the television show Timeless that featured Katherine Johnson. I thought it was interesting that twice in one year I got to see a portrayal of someone who I had never heard of. In addition, the world of computing in the 1960s was so interesting to me since its hard for me to imagine that, during such a recent decade, those calculations couldn’t be done on a machine.
The actual feel of the movie was somewhere between a dramatized TV documentary and a Hollywood biopic. While this might be a turn off for some, I thought that, while it wasn’t perfect, it worked well since the writing was well crafted and the story had a good balance of history, science, comedy, love, social commentary, and personal drama. As I’ve said before in previous reviews, it can be hard to make a movie about a major historical event where the outcome is well known. Thus, the filmmakers either need to portray the story in a unique way or they need to focus on some other aspect of the story to get the audience interested and invested. For that reason, the film was more about the personal struggles of the three lead women and less about the national and political struggles of trying to get Glenn into space. With that said, I found the scenes portraying the Friendship 7 mission exciting and suspenseful despite knowing the outcome. I also enjoyed that the movie made it clear that the reason we were trying to get into space in the first place was more about global politics than about exploration in and of itself.
The cast was incredible, with close to 10 topnotch performances by well-known actors and actresses. Kevin Costner and Taraji P. Henson, in particular, had some extremely powerful and emotional scenes that blew me away and would not have been possible in the hands of less talented individuals. Glen Powell did a phenomenal job of portraying John Glenn as kind and charismatic. Like many historical figures, most of us know John Glenn as a fact from history class, but never really saw him as a real person. Glen Powell’s performance was a great tribute to a great man, who I know understand on a more personal level. I also have to mention Jim Parsons, who played a slightly racist, sexist engineer that works with Katherine, but still manages to have a little bit of that comical Sheldon Cooper arrogance in his performance.
The film was extremely moving and had a number of potent, empowering moments. The three lead women fought against the adversity of racism and sexism to overcome the stereotypes held by American society in the early 1960s. Using their intellect and inner strength, they proved their merit to those around them and left an indelible mark on history. Yet, they remain hidden figures that few people know about, which is what really made the movie so powerful. For these reasons, after seeing Hidden Figures, I did some research to learn more about the women and their story and was a little surprised by what I found. Many of the more dramatic, Hollywood moments that I thought had been added in where largely true (such as John Glenn asking NASA to have “the smart girl” (Katherine) personally check the math before he went up in the capsule), whereas the race issues that made for the strongest scenes were almost entirely fabricated.
In their own accounts, the three women (Katherine in particular, who is seen in the film struggling with segregated bathrooms) said that they never felt any sort of racism while working at NASA. Instead, they felt NASA was largely insulated from the issues going on in the rest of the country since the focus of their work was getting the job done by utilizing the skills of the most intelligent people. Katherine mentioned that there could have been some people she worked with that had racial biases, but she experienced it. Obviously, the views on race that permeated American society during the 1950s and early 1960s played a large part in the lives of these historic women, but notions about gender affected their lives much more than subtle or overt racism.
While I was surprised by these findings and they did change my overall view of the film, I had to consider to myself exactly how much this knowledge changed my opinion about Hidden Figures. In the end, the movie was entertaining, uplifting, empowering, gripping, and emotional. Instead of being a fully accurate depiction of the historical women in question, the film told their story faithfully, but overlaid modern social commentary on race relations. It was less about the historical event than about the social issues of the era in which that event took place. While the three women didn’t face as much adversity as the movie portrays, the fact remains that they are hidden historical figures despite playing such a large role in space history. I believe that the filmmakers decided to portray the story this way not to fool people, but to make a statement in an artistic and educational way.
In addition, I felt like the filmmakers handled the conversation regarding race in a thoughtful and nuanced way. There were white characters that clearly held overt racial beliefs (Jim Parsons), there were others that found such differences to be so inconsequential that they didn’t even notice them (Kevin Costner), and their were others that had subtle biases that they weren’t even aware of (Kirsten Dunst). On the other side of things, the black characters had different views of white people and how to work towards true equality. But most importantly, the film showed that people can change their mindsets by coming into contact with people who go against their preconceived notions. I think that despite that message being somewhat forced into this story, it is an important one for people to internalize in modern times.
Overall, I highly recommend seeing Hidden Figures, especially if you enjoy history and space exploration, if you are a fan of any one of the many incredible actors and actresses featured in the film, or if you want to feel empowered by this moving and uplifting story. Outside of the actual Friendship 7 mission, there are many reasons to see this movie on the big screen versus watching it at home. I would be shocked if anyone didn’t find this story inspiring and exciting.