Q: How do you know when a movie about history has succeeded?
A: When you still sit there on the edge of your seat waiting to see how it all plays out even though you know or lived through it all.
This is, first and foremost, a good movie about the Space Race, which serves as both the core and catalyst for the plot. And, while the acting is great, the real credit to the success goes to Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) who directed and adapted (with Allison Schroeder) Shetterly’s book on the subject of these gifted black women of NASA. But this isn’t just a political discourse or history lesson; Hidden Figures delivers a tale about extraordinary people leading, to a large degree, ordinary lives that we care about. And to accomplish that, he pulled together an ensemble that works wonderfully together, though dominated by three powerful women.
Taraji P. Henson (Person of Interest) as Katherine Johnson is sharp witted, intelligent, and all-too-human in a world that would rather not spend time with her. Her interaction with Kevin Costner (Draft Day) is one of the great aspects of the film; watching him discover the challenges his team faces and seeing his reaction to what he learns. Henson’s quiet strength is compelling, realistic, and amazing given the era.
In parallel, there are two other stories we follow. Octavia Spencer (Divergent Series: Allegiant) as Dorothy Vaughan spars quietly and with intense politeness with Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special) in a way that shifts everything. While Janelle Monáe (Rio 2) owns her part of the story as Mary Jackson striving to break ground to reach her own potential despite every effort to frustrate those desires by the rules around her.
Jim Parsons (Home) has a quiet but important role and one that is representative of more men at the time than we’d probably like to admit; he isn’t even aware of his own sensibilities. And Mahershala Ali’s role may not be the biggest stand-out of his rapidly growing career, but it is still well executed and quite a reverse from his stint on Luke Cage.
History is a slippery thing. We know of it only what is recorded and what is taught. It is no accident or surprise that in the last few years a lot of the stories hitting screen are there to flesh out the highly edited American history delivered in schools. They cover hundreds of years from 12 Years a Slave to Free State of Jones to Selma to Birth of a Nation to, now, Hidden Figures, and to odd fake histories like Django Unchained. But it isn’t just about black vs. white it is also about man vs. woman in society. These films have not come into existence by accident. It is a bit of zeitgeist and a bit of a growing concern. Hidden Figures, in particular, manages to highlight all of that while still delivering a great film. It is certainly a tale of prejudice and segregation at a critical point in time for our country, but it is also more broadly a relevant example for the current resurgence of the negative aspects of nationalism in our world.
Make time for this story. It is a great tale of triumph told well. Even if you think you know it all, you will probably still discover aspects of the story that you didn’t know. And the performances, script, and direction are sure to be gaining more attention as the awards season rolls on.