If history is a whitewash, perhaps the cleverest aspect of Theodore Melfi’s film, adapted by Allison Schroeder and the director and produced in tandem with the Margot Lee Shetterly book that inspired it, is in the way it normalises the issues it raises for a mainstream audience. There’s no fancy editing, no artsy camerawork, no grandstanding performances. It presents a difficult subject as essentially an object to be overcome and is a story that anyone, therefore, can appreciate. Race might be the agenda but it’s the human-interest angle that carries the film – and if that means it gets the widest possible audience, that’s no bad thing.
Basically the meeting point between A Beautiful Mind and The Dish, Hidden Figures is the other side of The Right Stuff; as the subtitle of Shetterly’s book has it, The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. The film focusses primarily upon Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), a maths prodigy who finds herself promoted from a modest position in the “Colored Section” at NASA, to the very heart of America’s attempts to overtake Russia in the space race. It was Johnson’s calculations that helped put John Glenn into orbit around the Earth, and later two men on the moon. Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) teaches herself how to programme a computer (of the mechanical kind, computer being the contemporaneous word for a person who computes things), becoming NASA’s principle IBM operative, and Mary Jackson (Monáe, of We Are Young fame) becomes the first black woman in an all-white school as she studies for the qualification she needs in order to become a female engineer.
The film is populated with the kind of characters you’d expect to see; Kirsten Dunst as a supervisor who doesn’t consider herself racist, The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons as a head engineer whose professional envy feeds his low-level bigotry, and Kevin Costner as the administrator of the project, a man who doesn’t care who does the job as long as it gets done, but begins the film having little time for the personalities under his auspices. The characters’ trajectories are predictable but played with enough subtlety not to stray into sentimentality, and the same is true of the three leads. This is not a film about histrionics or grand gestures, and the women achieve their goals through diligence and determination, and it’s because those goals are that much further from their grasp that it’s a story worth telling.
Hidden Figures wears its relevance lightly but without diminishing it, and while it’s not pushing any artistic boundaries that is perhaps the point; it’s a story we can all empathise with, regardless of colour.
Special Features: making of / deleted scenes / commentary / gallery
HIDDEN FIGURES / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: THEODORE MEFI / SCREENPLAY: ALLISON SCHROEDER, THEODORE MELFI / STARRING: TARAJI P. HENSON, OCTAVIA SPENCER, JANELLE MONÁE, KEVIN COSTNER, KIRSTEN DUNST, JIM PARSONS / RELEASE DATE: 3RD JULY