Hidden Figures (2016)


Movies reflect the current political climate in unexpected ways.  I feel like when things are confusing or scary, what we end up getting is a strange mishmash of movies that explore the darker governance and we also get some very, very uplifting and happy movies as part of a collective healing we need to experience.  Hidden Figures was made during the Obama Administration but, let’s face it, belongs to the Trump Administration.  I predict that during the next four years, we’re going to see lots and lots of movies in the same vain as Hidden Figures, and I don’t mind, because we’re going to need them.

Hidden Figures tells the depressingly under-told story of women’s contribution (specifically women of color’s contribution) to the science and the mathematics behind the space race.  During that time in the early 1960s, segregation was in full force.  People of Color couldn’t use bathroom facilities reserved for Whites.  America could temporarily put its dislike for minorities on hold, though, in order to team up against a common enemy:  Russia and Communism.

Three women are at the center of the story:  Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), the widowed mathematician responsible for some of the space race’s early advancements in orbital logistics.  Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), the technical supervisor of a team without the official title, and one of the original IBM computer programmers for NASA.  And Mary (Janelle Monáe), the engineer who hits roadblock after roadblock and keeps pushing through until she achieves her dreams.

The supporting cast is great, too.  Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison and it’s nice to see Costner playing something like this.  He’s always been a good actor, but he needs the right role, and this one is perfect for him.  He gets to shine through in the bits that he’s in.  Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson, the love interest for Katherine, continues on his current trend of great performances.  In the past few months, I’ve seen him in Luke Cage, Moonlight and this, and each role he’s in is vastly different from the last, but each one he gives it his all.  He’s one of the best working actors today.

I liked how conflict was handled in Hidden Figures.  It’s easy to assign someone as the villain in a story like this.  Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford plays the asshole in the office who’s a stickler for the rules, and it would have been easy to make him a motiveless “bad guy” who seethes with racism, sexism and general bigotry.  And while he certainly is all of those things, above all else, he’s just a petty guy who’s prone to jealousy.  While, yes, a jealous figure and probably the closest thing this movie has to a villain, he never reacts in ways that are too ridiculous.  At one point, Katherine writes down a complicated mathematical formula, based on an earlier one, and expands upon it.  I thought that Paul was going to steal the work and pass it off on his own.  He never does, and I was glad to see the movie didn’t enter high melodrama.  He, instead, retaliates against her success by trying to keep her from essential meetings and by keeping her name off of reports.  But, yet, he’s never a bad enough guy that he can’t admit when he’s wrong.  He’s less a villain and more a flawed human being who has issues with inadequacy.  The way the film handles him was refreshingly nuanced.  For that matter, it was nice to see that the conflict against Russia was more a race against time than anything else.  It would have been easy to have created a mustache-twirling Russian caricature, but they’re never seen as wicked, just that their advancements are difficult to keep up with.

Hidden Figures is a straightforward movie that is told with sincerity and without cynicism.  It views the past as riddled with injustice, but understands that in any era where injustice is the norm, people have always been, for the most part, good people.  The real antagonist is systematic racism.  Hidden Figures also views the future with hope, a much-needed hope for everyone.  Movies like this take a time and a place that were hard for someone and instead of dwelling on how impossible it ways to get ahead, it shows how the impossible was made tangible, and then vanquished.  These messages always have been important, but are essential today.

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