The Help. Crash. Remember The Titans. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Blazing Saddles. Putting race relations and civil rights in America under cinema’s microscope is a cultural exercise almost as old as Morgan Freeman. It’s a subject that transcends both eras and genres alike, as relevant to today as it’s ever been, but it faces a fundamental problem; the longer the issue itself endures, the more at risk stories about it are of growing stale. How many ways of saying ‘racism is bad’ must there be before the point is rendered obsolete? Standing out from the crowd is an ever-growing pressure for African American stories and storytellers in this industry, but what sets Hidden Figures apart is a surprisingly simple reworking of the ‘African Americans struggling in a white man’s world’ formula – emphasis not on the ‘white’, but on the ‘man’.
In 1961, as the US and the USSR are locked in the intensity of the Space Race, mathematical prodigies Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ for NASA. As pressure mounts within the US government in the face of Soviet success, Katherine finds herself seconded to the Space Task Force, whilst Mary’s assistance with the space capsule convinces her to pursue an engineering degree, and Dorothy fights for her job against the introduction of electronic computers. But in a time when red is the enemy, can NASA look beyond black and white?
The issue of race relations may seem a little tacked on there, but it illustrates what is easily Hidden Figures’ unique selling point. It’s odd to say this of a film that so highlights 1950s/60s US segregation, with characters citing Brown v. Board of Education and newscasts namedropping the Freedom Riders. But as much as Hidden Figures acknowledges this day-to-day reality for its protagonists, ultimately it’s all just context and backdrops. It’s not the colour of their skin that defines them most, but their sex. It’s a shift in emphasis that’s nothing short of inspired, elevating the story from yet another two-hour case study of racial injustice, and conflating it with today’s concerns over sexism and gender equality. What’s more difficult than being black and ambitious in early 60s America? Being black, and ambitious, and a woman in early 60s America.
In communities and groups both black and white, our leading ladies are continuously disparaged and undervalued, even by the men in their lives. Jim Parsons’ snooty head engineer Paul Stafford is something we’ve seen a dozen times, and so his slights towards Katherine come as no surprise. Katherine’s love interest Jim (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, his early condescension towards her work and ambitions makes an indelible mark. In so doing, the film captures a distinctly more holistic picture of the issue at hand than many a major Hollywood feature of its kind, a reminder that true progress towards social equality cannot be achieved in the workplace without its equal recognition in the home, and vice versa.
Despite Katherine being the central focus of the story, the trials and tenacity of Mary and Dorothy are fleshed out and explored so fully that to call either of them supporting characters feels like a disservice. Henson, Monáe and Spencer bring their A-game to their every second of impressively balanced screen-time, with Monáe’s courtroom speech an especial standout both as a scene and as a performance. Outside of the film’s core on-message moments, however, things can at times feel a little run of the mill. Kevin Costner’s turn as the weighted down Space Task Force director Harrison leaves little impression, but when your ‘big moment’ is centred on the line “we all pee the same colour”, you know this isn’t exactly a Spencer Tracy-type role. Likewise with Kirsten Dunst’s half-baked southern accent as supervisor Vivian, the job is done fine but to generally blunt and toned-down effect.
Nevertheless, Hidden Figures is a cinematic triumph for feminism of a different colour, and a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the fight for gender equality today. It makes no attempt to downplay its ethos of ‘pursuing the improbable’, frequently conflating the struggles of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy with mankind’s greater destiny amongst the stars, but it befits the spirit of the times both then and now. Basking in the ample charisma of its leading ladies, as well as a thoroughly foot-tapping soundtrack, Hidden Figures is a timely film that knows it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously for its point to be made.
Final Score: 4/5