Review: Hidden Figures is Oscar-Worthy for Many Reasons

This film will move you and teach you about the brilliance of African-American women you never knew of

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Title: Hidden Figures
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali
Director: Theodore Melfi
Genre: Drama/History
Duration: 127 minutes
Bayside Rating: 4/5

Bayside Journal was invited to the Star Movies Special Screening of Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. Because it was a secret screening, I was unaware of what to expect and wondered if it would even be worth it. But as soon as I saw the opening credits appear on screen, I knew that it would be an evening of brilliant cinema.

Set in the America of the Sixties, Hidden Figures weaves together the stories of three African-American women mathematicians in NASA – a world dominated by white men. It is set in an era where Segregation (the segregation of facilities and services based on race) was still in effect in the United States, and it provides an unabashed, unapologetic look at how racism and sexism operated in NASA and the rest of the country.

Trio

I was floored within the first 20 minutes of the film, simply because of the faces I saw on screen and the sheer brilliance of their acting. Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Goble is strong and passionate, Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson is feisty and rebellious, and Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn is practical and mature. What is common across all three is a quiet sense of determination to prove their worth in the world. It’s an interesting mix of characters and the trio has an undeniable chemistry.

When it comes to the writing of the film, I am still in two minds. There are countless dialogues of the film that are both moving and memorable, such as the scene where Henson tells Mahershala Ali that women at NASA get their jobs not because of their skirts, but because of their glasses, or when Janelle Monáe’s husband says, “Civil rights are not got by being civil.” Of noteworthy mention is the scene where Henson breaks down and shames her colleagues and the NASA administration for their discrimination, followed by the scene where Henson’s boss strikes down the sign outside the restroom meant for coloured women.

Janelle Monáe character’s comebacks are nothing short of sarcastic and hilarious. My favourites were these:
Katherine: How could you possibly be ogling these white men?
Mary: It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every colour.
NASA official: If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary: I wouldn’t have to; I’d already be one.

But sometimes, the messaging gets a little heavy-handed, with the constant emphasis on signs that say “Coloured” and Janell Monáe’s speech in court where she convinces a judge to let her attend a non-Black school, by emphasising that he should be the first to take this landmark decision. This led me to think that maybe that is just how life was for African- Americans during Segregation. To be constantly reminded that you are Black by signboards and people, to be denied of opportunities and to be aware of the reason why, to be looked at with suspicion by police officers, and that look of unpleasant surprise everyone else has on their faces when you enter a room where “you don’t belong” – these could not have been experiences that are easy to forget or forgive. Maybe that heavy-handed focus was needed.

Office

The film has been shot beautifully and effectively, and the visuals are reminiscent of the TV series Mad Men, which is also set in the Sixties. You can sense the struggle in Henson’s life at NASA because of the way that the camera follows her. Henson’s character can find loopholes in equations only in the comfort of a toilet seat in a restroom, which is a feeling that many of us are familiar with. When she is given a promotion and has to move to another building, this mundane act of taking files to the restroom becomes a task, because there is no restroom for women of colour in this new building.

The camera pans in and out as she runs from one building complex to another in a hurry to relieve herself. This whole dramatisation, which occurs several times in the film, is funny at first, but deeply saddening when you realise the implication of it. There were no coloured bathrooms in that building because NASA did not account for a day when a person of colour would be qualified enough to work there.

Henson
Taraji P. Henson in a still from the film

Hidden Figures is eye-opening in more than one way. It presents the mathematical aspects in a manner that makes you feel awe for the scientists who made these rocket launches possible; every time Henson solves an equation, it’s like watching a magic trick. Not only does the film shed light on just how trying times were even for educated, qualified Black women, but it also illustrates how women were not expected to participate in what is quite literally “rocket science”. And even if they are, their involvement is limited to tasks that are not as important as those performed by men.

This is what makes the title particularly striking. Before the film could start, I could guess that ‘Hidden Figures’ was a reference to the complex science that is responsible for space travel, but I did not realise that it would also have another meaning – the fact that those equations were written by women that history does not remember, because of their race and gender. I think the film achieved its goal, because there we were, a room full of people of colour, rooting and cheering for the success three women of colour, who are no longer “hidden”.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for the Oscars in several categories. It releases in India on February 17.