Many complain about Oscar Season always doling out depressing films. Still others have objected to the lack of diversity in said films. But director Theodore Melfi's HIDDEN FIGURES, based on Margot Lee Shetterly's novel about three African-American women mathematicians who played vital roles in NASA's space program in the 60s, will scratch that itch -- it's got inspiration and diversity built into every frame of the film. And the story, based off of true events, takes the challenge effortlessly.
The film begins with a young black girl, spouting off mathematic equations while her parents figure out how to provide opportunities for their daughter. After the family's community takes up a collection for the child genius to get her into a good school, we flash forward to the little girl years later -- Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), the soft-spoken mother of three who, in her introduction, sits dreamily in a bright blue STATION WAGON, her two friends outside, trying to fix the broken down vehicle. They are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and the three of them work as computers at NASA. Unfortunately, convincing someone -- especially a policeman -- that they are not up to trouble on the street, is a task worth fearing... for this is 1962, when segregation still thrives.
The story follows these three African American women as they struggle with the inequalities of their workplace -- breaking free from the computing room where twenty or so black women all work, and into the sea of white, predominantly male employees that make up the rest of the campus. Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group, the group tasked with managing the manned spaceflight programs, under the supervision of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), a man who notices very little about his surroundings if it doesn't involve getting NASA to space. For Katherine, this is a job that proves very difficult, as her coworkers seem disinclined to give her any sort of credit or proper clearances, not to mention the fact that she has to go to the other side of campus just to use the bathroom reserved for "colored people". Meanwhile, Mary dreams of becoming an engineer, but is obstructed by the law from taking the classes she needs to get there; and Dorothy does the job of a supervisor in a work environment that refuses to pay for a supervisor.
As these three women pursue their objectives, we see the active deconstruction of the racist and sexist perceptions that mid-century America still had ingrained in its society. The story remains as faithful to the original story as possible, barring cinematic techniques that keep the film at a palatable 127 minutes. And while true stories tend to be embellished to elevate their inspiration, this one doesn't have to change much at all. There are certainly facts throughout the film that stretch the truth a little bit -- Al Harrison, for example, was not a real person, but a fictionalized composite of three NASA directors at Langley at the time -- none of whom ever took down a bathroom sign. And while our three protagonists certainly interacted with each other, they didn't drive to work together every day. But regardless of their carpooling situation, they will still make your heart soar with the leaps they take on screen. As Mary's husband says at one point, "Civil rights ain't always civil", but these women aim to change that, taking strides for themselves and, consequentially, for the rest of the African-American community.
Henson, Spencer, and Monáe dominate the screen with such natural grace, filling in the nuances of their characters with ease. I could have watched an entire series with these characters -- let's hope Octavia Spence wins that Oscar. And the cast has many accommodating supporting roles, like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons in their roles as prejudiced NASA employees. There's even a short-but-sweet performance by Glen Powell as John Glenn. The film is a great example of a beautiful story paired with spot-on casting, and it really goes a long way.
If you're looking for a feel-good movie to scoop you up amidst a slew of more sobering Oscar nominations, HIDDEN FIGURES is your best bet. Now playing at Midtown Cinema!