Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures (2016)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi | 127 minutes | biography, drama, history | Actors: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidya Jewett, Donna Biscoe, Ariana Neal, Saniyya Sidney, Zani Jones Mbayise, Tre Stokes, Selah Kimbro Jones, Corey Mendell Parker, Ashton Tyler, Alkoya Brunson, Karan Kendrick, Jaiden Kaine, Gregory Alan Williams, Maria Howell, Arnell Powell

We all know Neil Armstrong; he was the first man to set foot on the moon. The names of his aerospace colleagues Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are already lighting a little light on a lot less people. John Glenn, the third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth, is more famous because he also had a political career. It is the astronauts who stay with us. But all those people who made such a space journey possible, who pioneered scientific work in NASA’s offices to write this history, are great unknowns to us. In the film world, it is actually always about the astronauts, because with their heroic pioneering work they simply appeal more to the imagination. But aren’t the real heroes the engineers, technicians and scientists who plan the space travel down to the last detail? Who are those people anyway? In the film ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016) by Theodore Melfi (‘St. Vincent’, 2014) we get to know those anonymous NASA employees. And that turns out not to be just middle-aged white men trying to win the “Space Race” against the Soviet Union on behalf of the United States!

It’s 1961 when we meet Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who works as a “calculator” at NASA’s Langley Research Center. In the segregated western part, that is, because the Langley Research Center is located in Virginia. Her friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) also work there. Katherine is a math genius, Mary dreams of becoming an engineer and Dorothy has leadership skills, which she has been displaying for months without receiving (financial) recognition. When the Russians successfully send a satellite into space, the pressure on the employees of the American space program increases. A big step has to be made: the Americans want to be the first with a manned space flight orbiting the Earth. The Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) has run out of white “calculators,” so Katherine is given an opportunity, which she immediately grabs with both hands. Her new colleagues do not immediately welcome her with open arms; they don’t think twice about offering her coffee from their cafetiere, and when Katherine needs to go to the bathroom, she’s forced to run for almost fifteen minutes to the black bathroom in the west wing. Mary is asked to assist the engineers working on the space capsule’s heat shield; when it turns out she knows what she’s talking about, she is urged to get her engineering degree. Because the University of Virginia does not accept black students, it must first go to court to enforce her right to admission. Dorothy makes yet another request to her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for her official promotion to supervisor, but is again denied the request. By chance, she stumbles upon the brand new (and immensely large) IBM computer that is to replace her team of ‘calculators’. Because no one can get the colossus to work, she decides to give it a try. And sure enough, she succeeds. By instructing ‘her girls’, she also ensures that they can continue to work.

‘Hidden Figures’ is based on Margot Lee Shatterly’s biographical book of the same name. Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan really existed; Katherine Johnson is still alive. In a world dominated by white men, they claimed their place in order to play an important role in world history. Their inspiring stories symbolize some 300 other African Americans who contributed to the implementation of the US Space Program. Each and every one of those people who fought against prejudice and racial and gender inequality. An important theme, which Melfi has cast in a very pleasant form. With three fantastic actresses in the lead, who keep things light without losing sight of the weight of the events. Octavia Spencer, who has already won an Academy Award for her role in ‘The Help’ (2011), is the only one to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but Janelle Monáe and Taraji P. Henson (leading role) they deserved it too. Spencer and Henson have more than earned their spurs on the silver screen, but the vibrant multi-talented Monáe, who is mainly known for her music, shows herself to be a gifted actress here. The cast, which includes the new Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (‘Moonlight’, 2016), Jim Parsons and Glen Powell, in addition to the aforementioned names, took home the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture , so assume that the acting is fine.

That actually applies to the entire film; that is perfectly fine. Humor and drama are in balance, the story grabs you immediately and rarely has a film with a scientific theme been so accessible. Music, sets, costumes, details: in ‘Hidden Figures’ everything is just right. Most important of all, you understand how important people like Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan have been to the emancipation of women in general and black women in particular, and put the events in a historical perspective, but on the other hand get carried away in a particularly entertaining feel-good story about three cool power women who let nothing and no one stop them from chasing their dream.

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