Hidden Figures (2017)

  • Time: 127 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Theodore Melfi
  • Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe


As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: A trio of fine performances empower an uplifting tale of tolerance and strength.

    GRADE: B+

    SYNOPSIS: Three African-American women overcome prejudiceby using their talents working at NASA during the early 60’s.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Hidden Figures, a docudrama solidly directed by Theodore Melfi, tells the true story of three African-American women whose talents with numbers brought them together to work on the space program at NASA. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) became the brains behind one of America’s greatest achievements in history: the successful orbit of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell). Dealing with Jim Crow laws and discrimination due to their race and gender, these pioneers contributed to the Civil Rights movement. The film tells their untold story with much understated power.

    There are some intriguing unknown facts at play in the literate screenplay by the director and Allison Schroeder (humans called computers / outdated technology like the massive IBM machines / segregated book sections in public libraries, many African-American secretaries working at NASA, etc.) The script shows the racial inequities in the subtlest of ways.

    Still, there is a bit of whitewashing over the more brutal aspects that occurred during the early 1960’s era against the “colored” race. None of the violence is shown in gut-wrenching honesty. It’s all a little too sanitized. and the lead characters come off a tad saintly. There also seems to be a large degree of fictitious composites with some of the supporting characters in order to create dramatic conflict for our trio of crusaders. These bigoted ”white folk” come off more plot devices than as actual people. However, the story itself is always involving and handled extremely well. The end result may be more crowd-pleasing than realistic, but as entertainment goes, historical accuracy is second place to real enjoyment.

    The lead actresses are superb. Ms. Henson, Ms. Spencer, and a beguiling Ms. Monáe create vivid characters and their chemistry is electric. One immediately roots for their inevitable success throughout the film. Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, and Mahershala Ali co-star, and they all bring great nuance to their stock characters.

    Mr. Melfi re-creates the turbulent times with a restrained vision. He never overdoes the injustice angle, although a little more anger may have more impact for this reviewer. That said, Hidden Figures is a film that finally recognizes the talents and determination of these African-American women who overcame obstacles in their everyday lives. The film deserves your attention. This is one of the most important feel-good movies of the year, with more uplift in their stories than the customary lift-off of a NASA launch itself. Go see it.

    NOTE: The film score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch added a nice R & B flavored vibe to the film. Especially strong was the theme use of the song Runnin’ and closing credit song, Mirage, with Mary J. Bilge’s strong vocals. Very impressive.

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  • As its title suggests, Hidden Figures shines a spotlight on those who deserve to be known and remembered rather than remain historical footnotes. In particular, three African-American women who were key contributors in NASA’s early efforts in the space race: Katherine Gobel (later Johnson), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The film may be especially timely due to the recent death of astronaut John Glenn, whose 1962 orbit was made possible by the efforts of these three women, but it also serves as a bracing reminder of the racial segregation that pervaded the country in the relatively recent past and the injustices that still exist today.

    Yet this is no somber history lesson, which may draw the ire of those who prefer their biopics served with more dimension and less gloss. Hidden Figures is an unabashed crowd-pleaser with many moments that will rouse you to stand up and cheer for the victories, minor and major, that each of the women achieve. Director Theodore Melfi, who adapted Margot Lee Shetterly’s book with Allison Schroeder, necessarily condenses the women’s lives into a fairly simplistic narrative but the film never feels rushed or lacking thanks to his lively pacing and the engaging performances of his three lead actresses.

    Taraji P. Henson portrays Katherine, whose knack for analytic geometry gets her assigned to the Space Task Group, which is being pressured by NASA’s bigwigs and the Kennedy administration to get their calculations locked down so they can match and surpass what the Soviets have already done. Katherine is barely acknowledged by the predominantly male team upon her arrival – one even mistakes her for the cleaning lady – but all eyes are soon on her when they realise that a coloured woman has joined their ranks. Project director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) may be a little less belligerent than lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) in his treatment of Katherine, but his condescension is off-set by his grudging respect of her mathematical skills.

    Meanwhile, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) has to contend with supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who continually ignores her requests for a promotion to supervisor even though she’s already performing a supervisor’s duties. Vivian doesn’t even afford Dorothy the basic sign of respect by addressing her as “Mrs. Vaughan.” The feisty Mary (Janelle Monáe) is encouraged by the chief design engineer to apply for an engineer training program, but she dismisses his suggestion, “I’m a black woman, I’m not going to entertain the impossible.” When he points out that they are already living the impossible by attempting to put a man on the moon, she reconsiders only to encounter discouraging comments from her husband and the criteria for applicants suddenly revised.

    That these women, and many more like them, had to deal with such absurdities is a testament to their will and determination. Mary presents a persuasive argument to a judge to allow her to attend an all-white university in order to qualify for the training program. Dorothy, keenly sensing that the new IBM machines are a threat to their jobs as human calculators, trains herself and her team in computer programming. Katherine always got the job done, despite the fact that she had to dash across the Langley campus in high heels in order to use the coloured bathrooms. When an exasperated Harrison confronts her with her frequent absences, Henson’s indignation – “There is no bathroom for me here” – is stunning in its fury and dignity.

    Mention should be made of the polished cinematography by Mandy Walker, vibrant costume design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, and the number of ear-catching original songs provided by Pharrell Williams, who is also one of the film’s co-producers. Hidden Figures may be full of predictable beats and many may wish for more than the glancing insight provided of the women’s personal lives, but this is nevertheless a completely rewarding film that will motivate one to know more about these incredible women.

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  • Obviously, the title has more than one meaning. Hidden Figures can refer to the math that had to be done. It can also refer to the woman, many of them black, who were shuffled off to the side but still provided answers that were desperately needed to do something the U.S. had never been done before. The fact that these women were so integral to the space program demonstrates how far prejudice, raciest, and sexist behaviors can, in the long run, control our history. And many of these women stayed with NASA for decades and one of them won a Presidential Medal of Freedom in her 90’s for her work in the space program from Alan Shepard to the space shuttle. Who can understand the math, I’m not a rocket scientist, but these women will not be hidden any longer.
    Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi wrote a screenplay combined all the various elements without short changing any of them or creating a movie that was five days long. It is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly who first heard about these women from her father and then researched until she found the information and, even, the women. Melfi is also the director and he gets out of the way and allows the story to tell what needs to be told.
    Kristen Dunst plays Vivian Mitchel, a supervisor at NASA. She has a great scene that is so quiet and subtle if someone else was playing the character the audience might miss it but not with Dunst. You can see her changing how she thinks about these women. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, a man who isn’t all that aware of the social niceties because he is so wrapped up in his job. Jim Parsons’s Paul Stafford is another who changes his mind about the women but again it’s done in a very quiet way.
    Then there are the three woman; Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. All three of them should walk away with a lot of awards and some of them simply should be given to all three because it’s going to be hard to separate them by quality.
    I give Hidden Figures 5 pieces of chalk out of 5. It’s a simple story but one that generations should have hard before this. But if we had known about them all along we might not have gotten this excellent movie.

  • Wow, it feels like forever since I’ve seen a PG-rated film that wasn’t cloaked in animation.

    That film in question, is Hidden Figures (my latest review). As a true events story based on female African-Americans working at NASA, it’s something that any one of any age, could like. You could definitely take the family to it. You could see it on IMAX. And of yeah, you could show “Hidden” in classrooms if you were a history teacher.

    A late 2016 release geared up for Oscar, Hidden Figures is a movie that shows some Disney flair but is actually distributed by 20th Century Fox. There were times when I was reminded of The Right Stuff (scenes of John Glen’s Friendship 7 spaceflight are presented) and yes, there were times when I felt like I was watching a women’s version of Remember the Titans.

    The outcome of “Hidden” may be a little predictable, a little too happy happy, and a little too obvious in the ways things work themselves out. There’s also a romantic subplot featured that kind of feels underdeveloped. Oh well. That doesn’t mean you can’t embrace “Hidden’s” infectious, feel good nature.

    Director Theodore Melfi (2014’s St. Vincent) gives Hidden Figures a pristine look, capturing the early 1960’s segregation and dwindling, racial discrimination in lower Virginia. He also captures effectively, a few space travel sequences via the well known Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, FL. There is conflict in this film but it doesn’t overwhelm you. The stakes are just high enough with the olden style tunes of Pharrell Williams happily playing in the background.

    As for the performances, well they are admirable and the characters the actors inhabit are variably likable. Taraji P. Henson is all aces playing brilliant mathematician Katherine Johnson. She gets tapped to calculate the numbers needed to send a U.S. man into space. Octavia Spencer plays real-life Dorothy Vaughan, a supervisor at Langley Research Center. Janelle Monae channels Mary Jackson, a successful engineer who also works at Langley. Finally, Kevin Costner takes on the role of Al Harrison, the fictional director of NASA’s Space Task Group. Based on the amount of ticket receipts that Hidden Figures has already brought in ($84 million), it’s good to see Costner finally getting his box office sea legs back. “Hidden” is heads and tails above his other fare like Black or White and Criminal.

    In conclusion, I read a fellow critic’s review on another website I write for. He deciphered what the title of Hidden Figures means. My similar take is this: Hidden Figures translates into the math equations made by Katherine Johnson that no one knows about. All anyone saw on TV in 1962, was how John Glen successful orbited the Earth three times. My other take is as follows: “Hidden” has to do the oppressed females themselves. They were hidden mind you. They were (and some still are) educated, brilliant, and astute. Because of the color of their skin, it was tough for them to forge ahead in the narrow minded South. Now do I think Hidden Figures is Academy Award worthy? Somewhat. There are hints that the proceedings feel all too perfect, saccharine-like, and pat. Do I think “Hidden” is entertaining, breezy, and worthy of feeling? Yes of course. Heck, we’ll all know the outcome on Feb. 26. My rating: 3 stars.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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