With the recent spate of “diverse” films in the Hollywood marketplace, audiences searching for representation on the big screen are becoming more shrewd, more discerning. As grateful as many of us are to see ourselves in front of (and behind) the camera, we’re slowly, but surely moving into a landscape where a film with predominantly black leads won’t cause the batting of an eye.
Consider “Hidden Figures,” which despite starring three incredibly talented black women, has been marketed as the kind of rote, box-ticking historical drama that’s become so commonplace throughout awards season as to be a punchline. Its trailers and TV spots weren’t far from the mark—this is a movie that will have a long, long shelf life airing on TNT as a "new classic"—but there’s an X-factor elevating the otherwise predictable proceedings. What makes "Hidden Figures" worth seeing are subtler than simple "diversity": Though it is constructed with a plainspoken approach to storytelling and a well worn structure you could set a watch to, “Hidden Figures” is an ebullient exaltation of the unsung heroes who helped us get to the moon, populated by such fiercely laudable heroines that having a front row seat to their storied journey feels like a celebratory privilege, not a repetitive slog.
The film chronicles the stateside half of the ‘60s space race, focusing on three NASA “computers”―Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson)―who prove instrumental to the success of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, making the legendary astronaut the first American to orbit the Earth.
From the moment we meet our three leading ladies—broken down on the side of the road on the way to work—we’re instantly sold on their chemistry. Outside of maybe “The Golden Girls,” it’s difficult to recall another group of friends depicted with such palpable closeness so efficiently. Their introductory scene doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes, but by the end, we know all we need to know: Katherine is brilliant, but reserved; Dorothy is shrewd and resourceful; and Mary is boisterous and captivating. And their individual reactions to a police officer represents their soon to come narrative arcs in microcosm.
Each woman finds themselves outside their usual assignments: Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group working under director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and mathematical douchebag Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, for once cast in a role as punchable as his irritating face.); Mary wants to join the engineering program, but must go to court to become the first black woman to attend a segregated school for night classes; and Dorothy has to surreptitiously teach herself and the rest of her department FORTRAN, the coding language necessary to operate the IBM that’s soon to make them all obsolete.
Like most films set during this era, much of the runtime must be dedicated to creative depictions of blatant and recognizable racism. White audiences tend to adore movies like this, largely because it makes the discriminatory villainy easy to pinpoint and distance oneself from. After all, it takes place half a century ago and everything is just so much better now! And “Hidden Figures” populates the picture with easily detestable characters like Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, a supervisor who treats Dorothy and her colleagues like garbage. But those moments designed to make progressives feel great for the time they held a door open for “a black” fade to the background amid more subtly executed moments of discord.
Mary’s husband Levi (the underrated Aldis Hodge) and the widowed Katherine’s new suitor Jim (2016 MVP Mahershala Ali) both have notable scenes where they offer their respective paramours the same kind of withering lack of confidence that hoists up the glass ceiling they live under. These scenes work so well because they’re paired by symmetrically nourishing displays of black love later in the film. Seeing these supporting cast members played by men who ooze leading man charisma relegated to side plot love interests is refreshing, especially when they show themselves to be just as in awe of these women as we the audience are.
Even knowing that their stories have happy endings, Henson, Monae and Spencer do exemplary work selling you on every moment of their thorny rise to a rightful place in the science history pantheon. No other film out right now has protagonists who are so sympathetic, likable or downright engaging. Henson, in particular, plays somewhat against type while Spencer delivers the kind of reliable work she’s been giving for years. Monae, already overlooked in “Moonlight,” runs away with most of her scenes. It would be a shame if we never got a new album from her, but it’d be a fair trade if in return, we got more performances such as this one.
But the real star of the show is “Waterworld” icon Kevin Costner, who within the confines of the film, single handedly ends racism. Bringing his usual brand of fatherly earnestness, some of the most comically overt scenes in “Hidden Figures” are tempered by Costner’s unique brand of rustic sincerity. To wit, watching his stoic gaze contort with confusion when forced to acknowledge blatant racism offers some of the film’s least intentional humor. Sure, Henson and Monae both possess killer comic timing and usher along quite a few purposeful bits of laughter, but there’s a scene where Kevin Costner smashes a “coloreds only” restroom sign off a door that’s likely to engender more uproarious guffaws than anything Will Ferrell does in the next twelve months.
Well-intentioned liberalism aside, “Hidden Figures” is special for the crowd pleasing time capsule it offers for little black girls everywhere who sit through western history classes never knowing just how magical they are. Short of a Beyonce video shot with IMAX cameras on the moon, it’s hard to fathom a more powerful, more endearing piece of cinema to groom the next generation of NASA women.
"Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi is now playing.