'Hidden Figures' Review: A Feel-Good Civil Rights Film That Is Exactly What We Need Right Now
By John Boone
20th Century Fox
We know John Glenn's name. Having died at the end of 2016, Glenn's legacy as the first American astronaut to orbit Earth has been well cemented, and his name is right up there with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. We should know Katherine Johnson too, who, along with a team of black women at NASA, helped Glenn make history.
If there is a silver lining to the great injustice of her story having never been told onscreen, it's that we have such phenomenal actresses to star in it now: Janelle Monáe as aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, Octavia Spencer as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, and Taraji P. Henson, as Johnson herself, whose name was bestowed upon a research facility at Langley only this past year.
But Johnson's story, and Hidden Figures, begins decades earlier, with a montage of her as a young girl growing up in West Virginia. Doused in sepia tones, the scenes establish the gift that Katherine has for numbers, rattling off college-level equations as a pre-teen. Honestly, I'd have watched an entire movie of what is crammed into the first five minutes alone. "You have to see what she becomes," a teacher urges Katherine's parents early on.
What she becomes is a human computer at NASA and, with her skills in analytic geometry, she's enlisted to the Space Task Group and the race to put a human in space. NASA is "fast with rocket ships, slow with progress" though, which allows for two or so hours of Monáe, Spencer and Henson brilliantly chewing the scenery as they spout off math lingo and face down racial tensions.
On the latter, Hidden Figures deals mostly in broad statements -- "Civil rights ain't always civil," "Separate but equal are two different things" -- that we should know by now, but if current events are any indication, apparently we need reminding. One of the movie's first scenes sees the three women being unfairly profiled by a police officer and, though it's set in 1961, feels as timely now. "No crime being a negro," Monáe's Mary quips.
There is a grittier version of this to be sure -- most of the racism and inequality is presented as passive aggressive instead of what had to be some active aggressive -- but as directed by Theodore Melfi (the wonderfully underrated St. Vincent), Hidden Figures is done with a pop of fun and overpowering optimism, set to a Technicolor soundtrack from Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams. It may be the movie we need right now, with opportunities to laugh and cry and just feel good. At the very least, I guarantee you'll never be so enthralled watching a montage of numbers and fingers hitting calculator keys.