The scene will resonate with audiences aware of how dangerous it is to be black in a car on the side of the road. Anything can happen, especially when the police arrive, as history and recent current events readily document. However, when the inevitable squad car pulls up behind the two-tone Chevy sedan Spencer’s character is attempting to repair, the outcome is unexpected and positive. It is the perfect set-up for the film’s overall theme—the getting from point A to point B, an act of transport that is also transformative, though not without danger and difficulty.
Without any hint of preachiness, this opening also marks the distinction between the way these three real-life heroes managed the situation versus the way it might have played out today. And manage is the right word here, since even justifiable confrontation would have turned the whole situation on its head. Instead of arriving at NASA where other challenges awaited them, the three women might have wound up in jail or worse.
One of the strengths of Hidden Figures, which is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s bestselling book, is the way it illuminates these related but very different challenges. The three lead characters must cope with the dual disadvantages of segregation and sexism in order to contribute to America’s space program, which NASA’s male-dominated hierarchy, with a few significant exceptions, accepts begrudgingly.
The timing of the film could not be better. The current rhetoric found in social media and at least one highly regarded book tends to write-off African-Americans of the so-called “civil rights era” as irrelevant unfortunates who appeared to love their hardship and embrace their humiliation even in the midst of snarling dogs and fire hoses. Hidden Figures refutes that point of view not by telling or denying, but by showing how the best of that generation overcame seemingly impossible odds to accomplish what had never been done before—put a man called John Glenn in orbit around the earth and bring him back home alive.
Giants like Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep have said often that acting is channeling. And in this film, there is plenty of that to go around, especially in the performances of Henson, Spencer, and Kirsten Dunst.
As far back as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson revealed her particular gift for getting her ego out of the way in order to serve the truth of the characters she portrays. Her Queenie in that earlier film earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Her ability to resurrect the archetypal African-American woman of the early twentieth century was nothing short of astounding. Ask anyone with grand- or great-grandparents who go back to the 1920’s or 30’s, and they will tell you this is true.
While her abilities in Hustle and Flow and as Empire’s Cookie Lyon may also draw on similar talents, it seems more difficult to recreate historical black characters who appear to be approaching extinction in the post-civil-rights era. Henson pulls it off. Her Katharine Johnson is so far removed from Cookie that audiences will wonder if the roles are played by the same actor.
The same is true of Octavia Spencer who dialed back her confrontational Oscar-winning performance in The Help to provide a cagier, more nuanced interpretation of NASA’s Dorothy Vaughan.
Screenwriters will tell you that a protagonist needs a strong villain in order to become truly heroic, and Kirsten Dunst is the prim, rigidly unfeeling manager who fulfills that purpose for Spencer. Dunst is so believable at this that you may want to check IMDB to make sure this is the same woman who once kissed an upside-down Spiderman back in the day.
And speaking of channeling, Henson’s villainous foil is The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, whose derisive facial expressions reveal more about his prejudice and jealousy than the dialogue he is given to speak. African-Americans familiar with these unspoken expressions will find in him and in Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell the confirmation of experiences they feel but cannot easily document during EEOC investigations or in legal depositions.
While most of the film focuses on the inherent life-or-death drama of the NASA Space Program, it provides a touching, if sometimes schmaltzy, counterbalance in its depiction of African-American home life. However, the courting of Henson’s Katharine Johnson, a widowed mother of three, by Colonel Jim Johnson, admirably played by Mahershala Ali, is particularly heartwarming. It’s good to see what love looks like between mature, accomplished African-Americans. And it is especially uplifting to see the way Ali’s Colonel Johnson sets aside his own sexism in order to win the heart of a strong black woman who refuses to play by rules that deny her worth and value.
Last but not least, Janelle Monae rises above her eye-candy role as Mary Jackson in the scene where she must confront an initially hostile courtroom judge. As for Kevin Costner’s depiction of NASA Chief Al Harrison—you will want to stand up and cheer for him in one scene but only after he too passes through a transformation from points A to B brought on when he openly attacks Henson’s Katharine Johnson for being away from her desk for 40 minutes each day. If Henson has an "Oscar moment" in the film, this would be it.
Transport—and transformation—that's what this film is about. By car, by space ship, and by the vicissitudes of the human heart, which given the chance to do so can rise past its own dark fears into a previously unfamiliar orbit of light. The Hidden Figures of the title refers, of course, to two things: the difficult mathematics, engineering and computations demanded by the space race, and the three heroic African-American women whose story remained hidden and untold until now. I give an enthusiastic thumbs up to this must-see film.