Everyone is aware of the 1960s Space Race that culminated in the 1969 landing on the moon. What everyone may not be aware of is that during the sixties the space race was influenced and helped by a group of African American women working NASA.
The story of the Space Race in itself is just awe inspiring. Include this backdrop of women being victims to racial and gender imbalances in the work place, whilst remaining vigilant and resilient against those that defy them, makes the story even better. Theodore Melfi has managed to tell an incredible story that is wonderfully life affirming coinciding with NASA’s attempts to put an American in orbit.
As well as the racial tensions that are rife in state of Virginia during the sixties, there is also an unbearable tension within Langley’s Research Center as they listen to the reports of the Russians effectively managing to put a satellite into orbit. There is an increasing amount of pressure that is placed on Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his team of engineers to touch the stars.
Melfi manages to show the tension, regardless of what tension it is, effectively and the story becomes quite enticing as it develops. He has our three resilient heroes push the boundaries in their respective areas continually to achieve something that seems alien to myself in the present day.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is very headstrong in her ambition to become the first woman engineer at Nasa, whilst Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) shoulders the authoritative figure within this film whilst locked in a battle of wits with Mrs Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Melfi has chosen to run the narrative primarily through Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) as helps decipher the math that is missing for their prospective launches into space, which causes tension amongst Paul Stafford and his team of engineers.
The tension does come down to that way that the segregation is shown throughout the film, whether that is the denial of a promotion or disbelieving that an African American woman can solve the mathematics that are in front of her. This comes to a boiling point as Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) exclaims the ridiculousness of having to make a forty minute trip just to use the bathroom in a scene that is breath taking displaying a strong sense of empathy for these characters.
Everyone is aware of the racial segregation that happened between African American’s and Whites, but the fact Melfi manages to subtlety uses this almost as though we are transported to Virginia in the 1960s during this awe-inspiring age of new technology. His choice to have the characters experience these social in justifications first hand, but take them on the chin and continue to strive for greatness was incredible and managed to make the screening more enjoyable.
Although the narrative was strong and enjoyable with these three women that were played superbly, Hidden Figures feels a little bit longer than it ought to be. Don’t get me wrong, it is a triumphant piece of filmmaking, but some with smart editing could have made the film pack a lot more to punch, rather than drag.
Of the ensemble piece, Jim Parsons’ lead engineer Paul Stafford is the weakest as he professes that a ‘woman’ is unable to help with the advance math he is calculating and of course continually hinders her performance throughout the film. But this is one of the bigger positive points surrounding this film as regardless of her rejection to be accepted within the ranks of engineers, Katherine continually defies Paul and Al’s beliefs and delivers this resilient behaviour every step of the way and manages to enjoy her life regardless of the circumstances surrounding her.
Melfi with the help of Henson, Spencer and Monae has managed to bring to life the story behind the sixties Space Race in thought provoking way. He doesn’t rely too heavily on the racial tensions, but rather uses them in a narrative means to help progress the story and effectively instil a means of empathy within.
As I mentioned, my main grief is that the film begins to drag as it reaches it’s second hour of viewing as Melfi draws on Katherine’s personal life and her relationship with Jim Johnson, (Mahershala Ali) which for me seems a bit redundant. Not only this I thought some of the song choices seemed a bit displaced and out of sync with the rest of the story.
But Hidden Figures remains an extraordinary story about extraordinary circumstances that just seems so alien to me now, and Melfi’s ability to show this in an effective and justifiable way was a pleasure to watch, alongside the narrative the characters are incredibly life affirming and Hidden Figures just manages to keep you smiling.