Hidden Figures Proves Inspirational Filmmaking Isn't Rocket Science
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2017 4 Jan
This film never comes across as a lecture as it tells the story of three African-American women employed as 'human computers' by NASA during the 1960s overcoming sexism and racial prejudice. It’s instead an example of formulaic filmmaking done right—inspirational, enjoyable and educational. 4 out of 5.
Hidden Figures reveals a little-known chapter in American history. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are mathematicians employed at a segregated NASA in the 1960s who find ways to advance their careers—and the U.S. space mission—after Russia puts a man in orbit. The brilliant Johnson is brought to the attention of Space Task Group Leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), whose all-male team includes a worker who mistakes Johnson for a cleaning lady and a lead engineer (Jim Parsons) who resents Johnson double-checking his calculations. Johnson fights their condescension—and such indignities as having to take long walks to the only "Colored" bathroom on the campus—to play a key role in catapulting astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the earth and bringing him safely down again. Meanwhile Vaughn works under a white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who claims to value Vaughn's contributions and those of her workers in a NASA computer group, but who can't seem to find a way to promote her. Jackson goes to court to gain admittance to an all-white school and become an engineer.
The trio of impressive lead performances from Spencer, Henson and Monae receives strong support from Costner in yet another memorable performance following last year's McFarland, USA. But it’s the rousing nature of the story—an ode to the country's recognition of those who were overlooked for indefensible reasons, yet who worked as part of a common cause—that proves inspirational. The story beats are familiar, but the uplifting result—increasingly rare in today's cinema—feels well earned. A romantic subplot involving the wooing of one character gives the film a heartwarming dimension beyond the women's honorable service to their country.
In a film with so many protagonists, someone is bound to come across as underused. The character of Mary Jackson, who works to further the educational prospects for African-Americans in Virginia and beyond, is someone I would have liked to spend more time with, thanks to a spirited performance from Monae—a pop star who's had a breakout year on-screen with this film and a role in Moonlight.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
- A woman exclaims, “Thank you, Jesus!”
- A character says, “Let's have an ‘amen’” but adds “dam-it.”
- At a church service, a pastor uses his sermon to focus on civil rights.
- A character’s father is said to be “with the angels” and “watching over us.”
- A woman’s children are referred to as “angels on earth.”
- A character says, “You have a blessed day.”
Grace, in Jesus’ name, is said before a meal.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of “d-mn”; “hell”; “those ba-tards”; “holy Moses!”; “pee”; “what the devil are you doing?”.
- Sexuality/Nudity: No sex or nudity, although one suggestive comment is made about a man being “like that day and night”; kissing; an appealing subplot involves a character being wooed in an old-fashioned manner by a gentleman; a proposal and a wedding.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: TV reports of racial violence; a woman steals a library book, claiming it’s “already paid for” by her taxes.
Drugs/Alcohol: The women drink from an unmarked jar, with the implication that the beverage is alcoholic.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: A bit of foul language is the only thing keeping Hidden Figures from receiving a blanket recommendation for everyone.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Like Jackie, Hidden Figures takes some historical liberties—for instance, Costner's role is a fictional character based on a composite of several real NASA leaders—so historical purists may find fault with the accuracy of the film.
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, opened in limited theaters December 25, 2016 (wider January 6, 2017); available for home viewing April 11, 2017. It runs 127 minutes and stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali. Watch the trailer for Hidden Figures here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: December 20, 2016