America, 1960s: the country is still very much divided by colour. Martin Luther King Jr is marching, JFK appears to be listening, but black people are still drinking for different fountains, still sitting at the back of the bus. Meanwhile, at NASA, about 2 dozen black women are working their fingers to the bone (actually, working their brains dry – they’re not labourers, they’re computers in the time before computers were machines). Does NASA pay them equally? Not by a long shot. Treat them fairly? Not so much. Promote them? Never. But hire them they must because there’s a space race on with the Russians, and they can’t afford not to hire the best and the brightest no matter the skin colour encasing the brains.
These women, buried deep in the basement of a building far away from the main action, are fighting prejudice on two levels: race and gender. Hidden Figures follows 3 of them, real-life women who helped launch John Glen into space. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) does the work of a supervisor without the title or the pay. Not only does she get shit done, she intuits that the future of her computing department is changing and she takes it upon herself to learn the language of the future – and International Business Machine is being installed painstakingly at NASA, and she’ll be the one to learn its code, and teach it to others. Mary Jackson (Monae) has an engineer’s talent and mind but she can’t get her credentials to match because the only education opportunity is at an all-white school. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a single mother as well as a mathematical genius. When NASA discovers her talent she works overtime to help invent the new math necessary for John Glen’s orbit while still drinking out of the “colored” coffee pot.
Hidden Figures is conventional story-telling all the way, relating the story of ground-breaking women in the least ground-breaking way possible. But it’s crowd-pleasing: it had the audience applauding. These women are so inspirational that it would be hard to mess up the story, and Hidden Figures manages not to stand in its own way. At the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, Pharrell Williams, who collaborated on the score with Hans Zimmer, gave a concert of all the original music he’d worked on for the film. I worried that he might overshadow the film, but in fact his music fits right in very comfortably, establishing the time period in a pop-heavy way.
The cast is stacked with heavy-hitters. Octavia Spencer is nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, and she’s as good as we know she can be. But I was impressed with Taraji P. Henson, who plays a vamp and a bit of a diva with the press, and an outspoken, strong contender on Empire, but in Hidden Figures managed to play bookish and humble with a shy strength and subversive self-confidence.
Hidden Figures is a feel-good tribute; a story that was meant to be told. The script is a charmer, and surprisingly humourous, and the three leads infuse it with power. Sure it’s a bit run-of-the-mill, but it’s also a positive way to start the new year, and a movie you won’t be able to resist.