Hidden Figures joins the list of fantastic black films to grace the big screen and further accentuates what black women refer to as “Black Girl Magic”. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monaé and Octavia Spencer bring A-game performances as they tell the important, untold stories of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, respectively.
The movie celebrates black women who’ve built STEM careers in a time where racism and sexism nearly trumped the United States’ attempts at sending the first human into Earth’s orbit. This film is also apropos to the current political climate, including the conflicts with Russia.
The film is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. It primarily focuses on Katherine Johnson (Henson), a genius mathematician who works at NASA’s West Area Computers division for colored women. She’s accompanied by budding engineer Mary Jackson (Monaé) and fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), where their primary duties are to provide mathematical data for NASA to remain competitive with Russia’s Sputnik Space Program and launch their own space missions. The film also stars Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Aldis Hodge in supporting roles.
Henson is most notably recognized as her award-winning role as Cookie on Empire, but the performance she gives in Hidden Figures is her best one to date. She shines as a timid and kind mathematical genius who is forced to put up with the explicit and implicit racist and sexist attacks by her colleagues. However, as the film continues, the audience sees Katherine become a more vocal and essential member of the Space Task Group when she volunteers to calculate John Glenn’s trajectories to send him to space and back.
Very rarely do films tackle the experiences of black women as being a double minority. Hidden Figures doesn’t shy away from that aspect and highlights the problems of workplace racism and the differences between white and black feminism. Henson’s Katherine deals with Parson’s Jim Stafford taking credit for her calculations, shutting her out of important briefings with the Pentagon, and purposely withholding necessary information to do her job correctly. Spencer’s Dorothy performs the duties of a supervisor for the West Computing Area division but without the title and pay, which was rejected by Dunst’s Ms. Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell is the supervisor of the East Computer Division, who has no problem reminding the colored ladies they are inferior. Later, Dorothy and her division are at risk to be cut from NASA when the agency brings in an IBM machine that can perform the calculations in a fraction of the time as Dorothy’s team. Monaé’s Mary has the talents of an engineer, but is rejected from the job due to the “sudden” addition of qualifications needed to fill the position. Mary later remarks, as seen in the trailer, “As soon as we make progress, they move the finish line.” All are scenarios that black people, especially black women, can relate to.
The most underdeveloped storyline was Mary Jackson’s. Though her character makes a major breakthrough during the film, it would’ve been nice to see her character be more involved with NASA’s missions, especially towards the end of the movie. If the movie had to be a little longer to give her character more development, that would’ve been fine because it seemed the film started to lean towards Monaé’s character as only being the sassy friend. With that said, Monaé did an excellent job in the role and should be considered a breakout star among other black actors and actresses, especially after her performance in Moonlight. Kevin Costner did what he does best, which is play the same role he’s played in every movie for the last decade or so. This isn’t a criticism because it was done well and helped move the story along. He also had great chemistry with Taraji Henson. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst did a fine job playing every white coworker who is intimidated by their black colleagues who are smarter and more competent.
Hopefully, Hidden Figures leads the way for more movies to center around black women pioneering fields that are perceived to be exclusive to white men. Katherine Johnson, who is the only one alive out of the three, encouraged her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pursue careers in STEM. Representation matters and this film helps serve as a reminder that despite the many barriers black women face, they are just as amazing as their white male and female counterparts and have the ability to have large impacts in their respective careers.
5 out of 5 stars