The story of the space race is a familiar one. The Russians and Americans were locked in the Cold War and desperate to prove their superiority by being the first one to launch a man into space and ultimately send someone to the moon. Hidden Figures gives us another rendition of this well-trodden story, but from a point of view that we haven’t been privy to before. Unknown to many, NASA hired a great number of women of colour in the 1950s. They had their own segregated unit and checked many of the organizations calculations. Hidden Figures focuses on three of the most influential of these women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who were integral to achievements of NASA’s space program.
Like the math that put a man on the moon, Hidden Figures is an elegantly crafted film that reinterprets the familiar to open up a range of previously unimagined possibilities. The script by screenwriter Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi strikes the perfect balance between a serious, historical drama and popcorn entertainment. It never pretends or glosses over the many indignities and seemingly endless barriers these women faced because of their race and gender, but it also never loses the excitement of their achievements. Lighthearted jokes and scenes of these women enjoying life are interspersed with moments of soul-crushing indignity and soaring triumph. Apart from some of the mathematical dialogue, which is cringe worthy in a couple of places, there are so many little details and moments throughout the film. Melfi hasn’t relied on big, splashy moments, even for major breakthroughs. Instead, Hidden Figures remains with its feet planted firmly on the ground, anchored by the glorious performances from Henson, Spencer and Monae.
Hidden Figures is a celebration of breaking barriers. Whether it’s the limits imposed by society based on the colour of ones skin or ones gender or the limits of our atmosphere. Launching a man into space, orbiting the Earth and bringing him back again was a monumental accomplishment. So was Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson breaking through the plate glass window at NASA. Too often we are shown that history was built by white men, as if everyone else just stood back and watched. Films like Hidden Figures prove that this is not true and that is important. Plus, there aren’t many things that are as satisfying as watching a woman of colour stun a room full of white men into silence with her brilliance.