The space between the end of the old year and the start of the new is movie awards season, and thus biopic season, a time studios saturate the market with stories based on real-life people and real-life events in hopes of piling up prestige next to box office receipts. Capping off 2016’s biopic slate is Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, the conventional alternative to unconventional offerings like Loving, Jackie and Born to Be Blue, films that manipulate the biopic’s formulaic structure through their auteurs’ specific creative lenses. Stacked against these, Hidden Figures looks downright routine—but it’s routine that enhances the film’s best merits, rendering them delightful.
As with most biopics, Hidden Figures is centered on an individual possessed of great talent and vision, a figure who is both extraordinary and ordinary, who confronts a world which neither recognizes said talent nor shares said vision, and who eventually proves that social change is possible by taking on the structures the world has organized against her. Fin.
Melfi, without hesitation, embraces that blueprint, confident that his actors and his message will eclipse the film’s categorical trappings. It helps that Hidden Figures eschews “great man” clichés to make celebrating the achievements of women of color its purpose, telling the story of how African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) defied systemic discrimination to carve out places for themselves in NASA during the 1960s. It helps further that Melfi doubles down on uplifting his viewers by way of sheer jubilance: He believes in the inherent power of his movie’s meaning and history, recognizing that fancypants filmmaking would dilute their affecting power and lessen their impact.
The charms of Hidden Figures’ leading trio help most of all, and Melfi wisely doubles down on his stars’ joint and individual appeal to give his film its spark. Why else would he make introductions between his audience and his principals on a sun-baked stretch of highway as Katherine, Dorothy and Mary quip their way through car troubles? Grant that their banter is short-lived. Grant that as they trade wisecracks and witticisms, a cop pulls up behind them, and that their jocularity turns to anxiety immediately. The interruption to the women’s badinage is sobering through historical and contemporary lenses alike: In 2017 we know what it means to be pulled over for driving while black, or for talking to an officer of the law while black, or, as the rest of the movie shows us, for daring to have career aspirations while black.
That’s how Hidden Figures goes, flipping back and forth between its broad palatability as a triumph narrative and its sobriety as one about American racism. The film never makes light of the obstacles placed in Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson’s way in their profession. Instead, it uses entertainment value to cut sharp contrasts with the gravity of its heroines’ professional circumstances. If Melfi dips into pseudo-screwball territory on occasion, he remains ever aware of the injustices his film, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction tome of the same name, necessarily chronicles in honoring its subjects’ accomplishments, and maybe that’s why Melfi’s decision to stick to the biopic blueprint works. Johnson’s achievement is inextricably linked to her struggles. You can no more discuss one without discussing the other.
You can’t talk about Hidden Figures without talking about its cast, either, though you can boil down its primary performances to three key moments. In the first, Henson pays off the film’s chief running gag with a fiery condemnation of colored-only bathrooms and coffee pots. In the second, Monáe’s character wins the right to attend night classes in an all-white school to further her education as an engineer. In the third, Spencer elegantly rebukes Vaughn’s supervisor’s (Kirsten Dunst) attempt at eliding her own prejudices. In each, the actors demonstrate their chops with degrees of economy. As Johnson, Melfi’s main protagonist, Henson has the most material, and she dives into the role with human urgency, lambasting boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) for his ignorance of the effort she expends to just use the nearest restroom designated for black employees, which is halfway across campus. Her righteous fury is awesome to behold.
Monáe, by contrast, enjoys a far quieter victory, but if Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight isn’t evidence enough of her gifts as an actress, then her little-but-big moment in Hidden Figures should suffice: You can track a cavalcade of emotions—from relief, to elation, to defiance, to disbelief—across her face in the time it takes to blink. (Best not blink, then.) And there’s Spencer, the upfront straight-talker to Monáe’s smart aleck and Henson’s reserved genius, turning aside Dunst’s claims of tolerance with supreme grace in a beat that feels all too relevant. Dunst’s Vivian Michael props up the old “I’m not like them” defense to make herself seem like the lesser bigot to her colleagues and superiors. “I know you probably believe that,” Spencer coolly replies. Her words aren’t meant as condemnation, and yet they strike like the sharpest steel.
It’s the kind of mic you’d like to drop in conversation with your well-meaning but idiotic friends when they profess color blindness. Hidden Figures isn’t an angry film, or a judgmental film, but it is an instructional film. Step one: Listen. Step two: Take the nearest blunt object and tear down barriers of institutional oppression, either literally, as Costner does in one magnificent scene where he bludgeons the “Whites Only” sign above the ladies’ room closest to where he and Johnson work, or figuratively, as Glen Powell, playing the late John Glenn, does by introducing himself to the West Area Computing Unit, the team of black female mathematicians NASA and Jim Crow kept segregated from its white staff members, in front of his astonished peers.
Make no mistake, though: Hidden Figures is only indirectly about its white characters and remains Henson, Monáe and Spencer’s film at all times, reveling in their collaborative efforts at making the experience of overcoming bigotry and realizing one’s ambitions into a rousing crowdpleaser. The history the film depicts has a national scope, but the scope of the film itself is intimate: It’s about winning custody over the fundamental right to dignity, to just going to work and doing your damn job like everyone else without being goggled at on account of your race or gender. (Or both.) These are basic privileges, and maybe they demand a basic approach. Basic or not, Hidden Figures is a great time at the theater.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi; Margot Lee Shetterly (novel)
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.