Saturday, January 14, 2017
HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi, 2016)
The space race with the Soviet Union is at fever pitch in HIDDEN FIGURES, a historical drama that helps give due to some African-American women key to the United States effort in John Glenn’s launch into orbit. The three featured in the film work at NASA in a segregated pool where they are known as computers, meaning they confirm the math in the calculations. When the need arises for someone skilled in analytic geometry, Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) gets called up to a branch where she’s doing critical checks for manned rocket launches. Although she knows her stuff, Katherine still runs up against racism and underestimations of her abilities.
Back at the computer pool, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is struggling to get recognition for being the supervisor in everything but title and compensation. She also foresees the installation of new IBM hardware as the imminent obsolescence of everyone in her unit, so Dorothy sets to learning how to program the computers that will likely replace her. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is encouraged to become an engineer but cannot take the necessary classes because they are taught at a whites-only school. She pursues legal means to allow for her professional advancement.
HIDDEN FIGURES gives the conventional treatment to the stories of three exceptional women whose contributions to the space program aren’t widely known. Like following the steps to solve an equation, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi executes a methodical approach. The technique in achieving the result can’t be blamed for getting the job done effectively. HIDDEN FIGURES is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser operating within the standards of prestige cinema, but a little more creative risk-taking would have been appreciated among the familiar rhythms and character arcs.
Henson, Spencer, and Monáe anchor the film with intelligence and appeal. Henson projects strength and resourcefulness as Katherine strives to do her best for the team. Even when she goes against the grain, it’s rooted in the mission, not her own acclaim. Spencer conveys a sharp, ingenious mind attuned to the surroundings. She’s not a fighter per se, but she perceives how to win the battles in a less combative manner. In small roles in HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, Monáe hints at a cinematic personality that can leap off the screen if given bigger parts. She doesn’t ooze attitude for its own sake but as a weapon and armor.
While there is a broad quality to how HIDDEN FIGURES depicts the open racism of the time, Melfi does well in allowing audiences to recognize what was considered acceptable without engaging in excessive scolding from today’s perspective. It’s more powerful to watch Katherine break down to her supervisor about the overt indignities and microaggressions she faces on a daily basis that the white men and women she works with don’t notice. Dorothy’s white counterpart played by Kirsten Dunst addresses her by first name while Dorothy responds with her co-worker’s title and surname. Melfi doesn’t draw attention to this distinction, yet it’s clear what the difference in how they refer to one another means in regard to power and respect.