Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hidden Figures

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Theodore Melfi.

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali.

(From left) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star in Hidden Figures.

IT’S tempting to say that now is the perfect time for a reminder of the importance of equality, whether it be between the genders, the races or sexual orientations.

But the truth is that anytime is a good time for such a thing because there always seems to be something happening in the world to remind us of how petty and pointless these divisions are.

So anytime is a good time for Hidden Figures, a remarkable biopic that demonstrates how holding back the tide of equality is detrimental to us all, and that humanity suffers when we try to put up walls between us and our fellow humans.

It is the story of three incredible African-American women – Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were trailblazers in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and computer science, and played pivotal roles in the American space program.

Katherine (Henson) is the hero of the piece, with the film focusing on her work calculating the trajectories of NASA’s many groundbreaking forays into space, but Vaughan (Spencer) and Jackson (Monáe) get their moments too, such as Vaughan becoming the first black NASA supervisor and Jackson’s journey to becoming NASA’s first black engineer.

As with most movies “based” on true events, the timeline is condensed to take in 1961 and 1962, with Vaughan and Jackson achieving their milestones well before when they are depicted in the film. There are also the usual composite characters and a bit of a sense that things are happening in a fashion that’s too dramatically perfect.

But Hidden Figures is brilliant at capturing the things that really matter, such as the daily impact of segregation, the amazing skills of these women, and the bigger picture of it all – that keeping blacks and whites separated not only dehumanised important contributors to society, but potentially held back its progress. The symbolic shorthand of the film is quite powerful. While there’s a fair bit of the “white saviour” trope, such as when Costner’s NASA boss destroys the “coloured bathroom” sign, it all feels natural and evocative and most likely historically accurate in some regard. Simple acts like a trip to the bathroom or a white man handing a black woman a cup of coffee take on massive significance thanks to a sharp script, and it’s in these moments that film successfully stirs the emotions.

Its triumvirate of stars is uniformly excellent. Henson takes Katherine from timid to triumphant in spectacular fashion (a public meltdown is a key scene, part-hilarious, part-heartbreaking), Spencer makes Vaughan motherly in a take-no-crap kinda way that is a joy to watch, while Monáe, in her biggest role to date, excels as the sassy one of the troupe (although they all get their sassy moments).

The co-stars are also good. Costner hasn’t looked this comfortable in a role for over a decade, while Dunst and Parsons do well in their personifications of acceptably racist white people of the ‘60s.

Another standout is the music. Between the golden oldies and Hans Zimmer’s score (the latter is particular effective in the finale involving John Glenn’s historic space voyage), Pharrell Williams busts out some retro-sounding originals that work surprisingly well. His ability to capture the sound of the era while keeping things fresh and modern is impressive.

But Hidden Figures' real strength is in its emotional heft. Watching these three remarkable African-American women do incredible things at a time in history that sought to deny them of their potential is rewarding and powerful. These figures deserve to be hidden no more.

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