Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” (2017) is an inspiring account of overlooked superheroism that never underestimates the power of the uplift.
Set in 1961, it stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, respectively, as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, African-American women working under the employ of NASA. Best friends made separate by age and professional duty, they nonetheless line up in their determination to overcome the limitations placed on them by a decidedly unequal society and in their working together to help launch astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. Over the course of the movie do all climb over the mountains set in front of them by flagrant unbelievers.
And the film is as straightforward as that: “Hidden Figures,” sweet without being saccharine, is a story that takes pride in its many real-life triumphs, in its startling ability to tug the heartstrings and its offhanded way of eliciting grins without a drop of manipulation. Standing as Melfi’s second feature, preceded by 2014’s likable “St. Vincent,” “Hidden Figures” takes the easy-going crowd-pleasing elements of its predecessor and brings a newfound weight to them. Here, every victory sings; every tell-off soars. This is the kind of popcorn entertainment that makes you cheer.
But unlike, say, “The Help” (2011), “Hidden Figures” is sensitive toward its culturally asymmetrical setting and refrains from overtly romanticizing the major issues faced by its characters. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are luminous, perceptive women, but in the face of the society in which they live are they intellectually undermined, perpetually having to prove themselves in a man’s (specifically, a white man’s) world.
Johnson, shy but stormy when need be, is a gifted mathematician working under the Space Task Group, forever the smartest person in the room but always treated as an inferior facet as a result of her skin color and her gender. Vaughan, head of NASA’s segregated West Area Computers sector, is so used to explaining her vocational role to disbelieving ears that she might as well deliver an automated message when the time’s appropriate. And Jackson, a gutsy crackerjack, readily excels at work but is pushed back by undervalue that comes to a head when employers demand she take local night courses to “enhance” the vast knowledge she can already proudly call hers.
And because the story behind them is inexorably heartwarming, the basic joys of “Hidden Figures” simply lie in watching these lovable women get ahead. The actresses playing them make compassion easy to feel. Henson is profoundly moving, especially because she’s forced to abandon her passivity for the sake of advocating for herself. (A scene where she vents in frustration to her employer, played by a terrific Kevin Costner, is enough to ensure Academy attention.) Spencer, despite the fact that her Vaughan remains more simplistically supporting in comparison to the more fully formed Henson, carries an aura of otherworldly sensibility that makes her continuously primed to steal scenes. And Monáe, better known for her innovative musical career, is a revelation (also in last year’s critically acclaimed “Moonlight”) with a knack for the one-liner and the impassioned monologue.
“Hidden Figures” is one of the more enlivening movies of the year, and there’s a certain comfort to be had in a smartly made feature that’s also unapologetically genial. Chance of award sweeping come Oscar time is questionable – voters recurringly tend to pick favorites with a tragic air – but with the sum of its parts so appealing, inevitable is its future positioning as a classic.