The Oscar nominated Hidden Figures, a true story of civil rights and the space race, is the third film in what feels like as many weeks to feature photographs of the people it is based on in the end credits. I am getting really, really annoyed at this lazy shorthand for “it’s a true story, honest”. Because the real people are invariably less good looking than their Hollywood counterparts, it bursts the cinematic bubble and if anything makes the film feel less convincing, not more. Stop trying to convince me the story is true, because I have already suspended disbelief for two hours. In this case, you had me at hello because Hidden Figures, besides this increasingly irksome cliché, is a pretty good film. If viewers want to see pictures of the real subjects, they can go online or look at a history book, but unless you are pulling a Schindler’s List (the one time bringing actors and the people they were portraying together had genuine knockout emotional punch), please, please just stop.
Annoying end credit photo montages aside, Hidden Figures does an admirable job of telling a story that deserves to be told. In the 1960s, during the space race, NASA hired several black women who were literally called “computers” to help with their calculations. These human “computers” were kept separate from their white counterparts, with segregation being very much the norm at the time. The plot focuses on three women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Main protagonist Katherine is a genius mathematician who winds up working with NASA big cheese Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), helping him create “maths that doesn’t exist yet” to put a man into orbit. Elsewhere Mary is determined to become an engineer, but keeps hitting brick walls when she discovers she has to study courses at a whites-only college to qualify. Dorothy, unofficial supervisor of the other black female “computers” at NASA, wants recognition of her title, but hits bureaucratic obstacles underpinned with racism in the form of Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).
The central performances are all very good. Taraji P Henson in particular steals the film in one extraordinary moment when she explains to Harrison that there are no “coloured” bathrooms where she has been seconded, so she has to walk half a mile to take a pee. Harrison’s subsequent action (spoilt by the trailer if you’ve seen it) is a great cheer-out-loud moment. Look out for a fine supporting role for The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons too.
The story of how these three women triumph over adversity, and in the process make an extraordinary contribution to the history of the space race, is competently if unremarkably directed by Theodore Melfi. But not every film needs to reinvent the language of cinema and Hidden Figure certainly hits all the right dramatic notes, providing an absorbing and entertaining story that also has a modicum of genuinely interesting food for thought on the civil rights issue. The message of the film seems to be that the way to confront injustice is not through violence or demands, but by allowing hard work and perseverance to speak for itself, thus exposing the folly of racial prejudice and bringing about change.
In short, whilst this arguably falls a little short of the genuine awe in space race movies such as The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, nevertheless Hidden Figures is a diverting and worthwhile watch, primarily for the excellent and sympathetic performances from the lead cast members.