Not since Sister Act has a film fronted by black women had quite the commercial impact of Hidden Figures, which has crashed through the $100 million barrier at the US box office and even scored a place on the Best Picture line-up. Underrate the star power of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe at your peril; by the end of their film, you’ll certainly be doffing your hat to the women they’re playing, too.
Hidden in the sense of historically obscured – their contributions to the space race neglected and marginalised – this trio of Nasa employees had key roles to play in getting John Glenn into orbit in the early 1960s, and safely back.
Henson, keeping a lid on her natural exuberance, tops the bill as one-woman computer system Katherine G Johnson, who gets bumped up from the blacks-only wing of Nasa’s Virginia HQ and tasked with checking the calculations on space-flight trajectories, while her white colleagues, almost all of them men, glare at her suspiciously and minimise any credit coming her way.
She’s pitted against Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, a gruff taskmaster who grasps her mathematical genius more quickly than most, and gets one big, slightly unfortunate white saviour scene when he finds out the distance she’s been dashing just to get to the “colored” restroom, halfway across the entire campus.
Spencer, who got the Oscar nomination, plants her feet down with stubborn assurance as computation expert Dorothy Vaughan, who asks her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) for a long-deserved promotion and gets the brick wall of oblivious racism: not the conscious or malicious kind, but the ingrained, unthinking kind. Their scenes bristle with it, and certainly outdo the equivalent ones in The Help, because Dunst isn’t playing anything like the snarling caricature Bryce Dallas Howard was given there. She’s just an ordinary, unenlightened person – not there yet.
Holding her own beautifully is Janelle Monáe, who really deserved a nod herself: as a frustrated engineer called Mary Jackson, she’s the feistiest and funniest of this trio, battling her way into all-white night classes after petitioning, in the single best scene, for a judge to take the first stand against segregation in her field. Her pugnacious touchdowns are hard to resist. So is her Moonlight co-star, the great, smouldering Mahershala Ali, as a suitor for Katherine whose proposal scene is one of the most unique and touching in memory.
Directed with what you might call resounding competence by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures isn’t pushing the cinematic boat out in any new directions, but it steers its prescribed course nimbly and nicely.
From a review by Tim Robey, The Telegraph