Imagine you are a woman. (If you actually are, you can safely skip this part.) Imagine, also, that you’re a woman who belongs to a race, religion, or caste, that’s discriminated against. Imagine that you’re sharp, intelligent, and ambitious. Imagine that you’re strait-jacketed by the forces of discrimination at work and in the society, your skin colour (or caste) the mill-stone around your career’s neck, weighing you down at the lower rungs of the ladder. Imagine that, despite all these odds, you actually break the shackles and shine in your own orbit. Stretch that imagination a little more, and imagine that you are a woman, and you’re in this stunted box in the 60s.
Or, if your overheated imagination’s got you exhausted, head over to the cinema hall and watch director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book by the same name, to get a taste of life that’s brushed with prejudices and colours. Written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, the movie is a rousing, celebratory look at the lives of three “coloured” women in NASA, and their startlingly true story. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a “computer” – so called because the role demands performing calculations – suddenly assigned to NASA’s Space Task Group, headed by director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The reason for this panicked flurry of reassignment is because the Russians have beaten the Americans at the space game, launching their first manned spacecraft, making cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin an international star. Peeved by this one-upmannedship, the American government leans heavily on Harrison’s group to launch the American’s space retort in a jiffy. Working in the Colored Computers division (yes, they actually called it that, and you know what it means) at the Langley Research Center are also Katherine’s best friends – wannabe engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and mathematician and the unofficial supervisor of this group, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Overlooking this division and liaisoning with Harrison’s group is Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).
Director Theodore Melfi packages this cast and comes up with a zinger of a movie, even as he traverses the absolutely gasp-inducing discrimination that each one of these ladies faces at work, in an institution that places a premium on analytical skills and intelligence, but only if it’s coming from men. And white at that. His touch is gentle, even as he throws focus on the harsh realities that Katherine faces in Harrison’s stilted, all-male group of ponderous men, led by engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). He keeps the atmosphere genial and light, even as he makes you cringe in horror as you watch Katherine run to the coloured women’s washroom – a mile and a half away – a couple of times in the day because, obviously, she can’t use the one closer to her work desk. The director makes you grimace in an outstanding sequence of Katherine’ breakdown with her boss as he demands to know why she spends time away from her desk.
Melfi also spotlights Mary Jackson’s story, as she, now looking at the spacecraft’s heat shields and why they’re flipping during simulations, is encouraged by engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) to get an engineering degree. And the one course that’ll help her at work is the one in the segregated Hampton High School. Watch in delight as she goes to court and in another winning scene, approaches the bench to make her case.
And you nod at the relevance at Dorothy Vaughan’s farsightedness of staying relevant at one’s job- as she, in a beautiful moment of inspiration, realizes that she ought to pick up FORTRAN fast, and figure out how the newly installed IBM 7090 mainframe computers work. And how, even borrowing a book on the said computer language is a challenge, because, obviously, why would coloured folks read such books?
Hidden Figures is filled with optimism, and a strange energy of joy and hope, and beautifully constructed scenes, that reveal only as much as you want to revel in them. Note the scene where Katherine’s new-found love, military officer Jim Johnson (a very quietly effective Mahershala Ali, described delightfully by Monáe’s Jackson as a “tall glass of water”) proposes to her in front of her three daughters and mother at the dinner table. It’s absolutely one of the most riveting and moving scenes in this project, so gracefully and lovingly done, you swallow hard and clear your vision – especially when Ali says of how he described Katherine to his mother, “She’s more than something. She’s everything.”
There’s a powerful scene where Kevin Costner, realizing what’s happening to Katherine, goes and breaks the signage outside the women’s washroom; and yet, playing the always-distracted Harrison, Costner unfailingly (and unknowingly) addresses his team as “gentlemen”, even as he’s got two women amongst them – one of them white. In a telling scene, when Costner tells his team that they’re all going to be working late, he tells them, “Gentlemen, inform your wives.” And you realize how it was then, as it is now, for working women and mothers, especially single mothers, to shine at work, and yet not be acknowledged at all that they have to impossibly multi-task and be effective – at being a mother and at being a worker in an office that has no time or patience with their challenges. It makes you stop and think of your workplace. Look at how Stafford stonewalls Katherine from attending meetings and tells her, “There is no protocol for women attending.” She in turns says quite simply, and truthfully, “There’s no protocol for a man circling the earth either, sir.” As Janelle Monáe says in a scene, every time coloured women get a chance to get ahead, “they move the finish line.” Not relevant in today’s time? Glass ceiling, anyone?
Hidden Figures is propelled into its parabolic orbit of sunshine by its three lead actors. As Katherine Johnson, Taraji P. Henson’s is a high-on-emotional IQ-zero-on-histrionics performance. It’s a difficult role made easier by her immensely high-on-heft acting skills. Janelle Monáe is the sparkler here. Her performance is superbly feisty, she niftily role-reversing in so many areas, so brilliantly, as in the scene where she’s feasting her eyes on the US cosmonauts, and when reprimanded, repartees, “It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every color.” Octavia Spencer is oh-so-fine, her quietly-bemused but know-it-all expressions lending such a fine touch to her role and to the movie.
As the office workers who revel in their white superiority, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are superb, never overtly marking their territories, but inertly ensuring they show folks their deigned places. Kevin Costner is perfect, his act an understated portrayal of stress and anxiety, yet his heart in the right place, but never immediately getting the undercurrents of injustice. The music score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch is a beauty. They employ some beautifully haunting and flying chorals in the scene where the American shuttle is launched. Or soak in the snappy brass section they get in whenever Taraji has to hoof it. There are some very funky, catchy and moving songs that feature Pharell Williams, Alicia Keys, Mary Blige, and in two tracks, Janelle Monáe herself.
Hidden Figures, then, is a manipulatively enjoyable, cinematically triumphant, and a pushing-all-the-right-buttons entertainer that also provides some savory snack for thought. (Social media’s ensured we have no time for food.) And in doing so, as it draws you in and makes you think at its story’s relevance even today; as it highlights the issues of diversity and shows how organizations and countries are the loser if they ignore these issues, its calculations are an unqualified success.
Hidden Figures is rated UA (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s Kevin Costner swearing that’s bleeped out, and a kissing scene in the kitchen that’ll make your kids realize what’s cooking there is not always food.
Director Theodore Melfi Running Time 2h 7 min
Writers Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner
Genres Biography, Drama, History
Watch the trailer of Hidden Figures here: