Friday, January 6, 2017

"Hidden Figures" Is A Surefire Crowdpleaser

Back at the Democratic National Convention last year that celebrated Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep asked the question, "What does it take to become the first female anything? It takes grit. And it takes grace." Those are the qualities possessed by the three women in Hidden Figures who overcame boundaries to become the first African-American women in their respective fields at NASA.

Set in the 1960's, Hidden Figures follows the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three mathematicians who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division at NASA. But they are then asked to calculate the data needed to help launch NASA's first successful space missions and catch up in the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia while overcoming prejudice within their workplace.

One of the film's greatest strengths lies in the actresses playing the titular hidden figures. Taraji P. Henson is aces as Katherine Johnson, letting us see the anxiety behind her steely determination as she takes on a grand task and lets her hands work as fast as her intelligent mind. A star is born in Janelle Monae who provides spunk and fierce independence as Mary Jackson while Octavia Spencer infuses a stoic warmth to her performance as Dorothy Vaughan. All three ladies have such good chemistry together that brings both light, bubbly energy and emotional groundwork.

However, their co-stars manage to do their part as well. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the leader of the Space Race mission and sheds what could've been a stock "white savior" character of any nobility. He does have a noble scene where he tears down the sign from a colored people bathroom and says how people at NASA should look past color. Yet Costner avoids veering towards any heroic qualities which is admirable. Also, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who play the rather condescending supervisors to our main characters, avoid veering towards any kind of slithering villainy in their performances. Their characters do recognize the prejudice in their workplace but they are still people trying to do their own assigned duties.

Another one of the film's greatest strengths lies in the screenplay by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder. Their script manages to capture the right historical context and the events in which the film depicts. But thanks to the strong writing, the film has a modern and universal message: When times get desperate, we can't all be separated. As we reach for a common goal, we need to look past skin color and gender so we can accomplish it. That message does manage to be hand delivered to the audience thanks to scenes like the aforementioned scene where Al Harrison tears down the "colored people's bathroom" sign. But it isn't always force fed and while there are points in the film that get emotional, the screenplay never feels sentimental. There aren't any forced police brutality scenes to hammer down the fact that this takes place in a period of segregation or anything like that.

So Hidden Figures is an inspiring crowdpleaser that is infused with outstanding performances by its ensemble cast and smart writing. Not only are the titular hidden figures thankfully no longer hidden, but watching this film leaves me hopeful that we get more films like it.

Grade: A-