Vol 11, Issue 2
Directed by Ted Melfi, Hidden Figures tells the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race.
These women were instrumental in helping place the first men in space, and did not receive recognition for their work until much later in life – Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, at 96 years old – hence the film’s title.
Hidden Figures depicts the trio’s struggles, and the dual prejudices they experienced being both African American, and female, despite having the same qualifications and being just as capable as their white male counterparts. The film juxtaposes NASA, the site of such ground-breaking mathematic and scientific advancements, with the continued, almost routine setbacks the women experienced. This contrast highlights the infuriating ignorance driving racial and gender prejudices. In this way, their successes in finally launching men into space can be seen as a clear metaphor for breaking the glass ceiling.
Hidden Figures is a really enjoyable, charming film. The subject matter is a director’s dream, because it’s just such a great story to tell. The lead actresses are uniformly excellent, with fantastic chemistry, though I did feel that Octavia Spencer was slightly underused. Then again, this is an unavoidable consequence of having three amazing individual stories to tell. They are accompanied by a strong supporting cast – audiences will particularly appreciate Kevin Costner’s performance as Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group Katherine is assigned to. Harrison reflects the progressive side of NASA, breaking down barriers for women of colour within the organisation. However, this progressivism is driven mainly by necessity – in the urgent context of the Space Race, it made sense to have all of NASA’s best minds on an equal footing. This is shown in one particularly memorable scene where Katherine makes an impassioned speech, making her boss aware that her absences from the office for periods at a time is due to the coloured ladies’ bathroom being a half mile away, and listing the daily humiliations she experiences as the only coloured woman in the Task Group.
Ultimately, though this inspirational story receives the Hollywood treatment for the silver screen, what I loved most was later reading their subjects’ own accounts of their experiences. In true badass form, Katherine Johnson said “it was just another day’s work.”
4 out of 5 stars.
Sarah Goegan is a fourth - year JD Student
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