Ben Cherry reviews Hidden Figures, showing in our cinema until Thursday 13 April.
The Best Picture Oscar nominations this year were a decidedly more diverse selection of films than last year’s Oscar race. As a result of the ‘Oscars So White’ controversy the Academy included films that told stories from a different viewpoint including, Moonlight, Fences, Arrival and Hidden Figures. Having seen the brilliant Moonlight at the Arts Centre a few weeks ago and had heard a lot of good things about Hidden Figures, needless to say I was excited to get to finally see it. Like Moonlight, the cinema was packed so I was not alone in the anticipation for this film.
Hidden Figures focuses on three African American women who work for NASA in Virginia, which in 1961 wasn’t exactly the most progressive of the States. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble who is referred to as a ‘computer’ and works in the segregated West Area computers division. Octavia Spencer plays Katherine’s unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson who is desperate to become an engineer for NASA. Things take a more positive turn when Katherine is transferred to the Space Task Group who works tirelessly to beat the Russians in getting the first man to space and orbit the Earth. She is the only African American female in the unit, which causes controversy amongst her peers.
Despite the serious issues at play and the potentially heavy subject matter in regards to the segregation and the prejudices of the era, the film is surprisingly light in the telling of the story and seeks to entertain the audience at every possible moment. It is a film made for mass appeal and there is plenty of levity in between all the exposition regarding mathematics and the equations needed for the US aircraft (the Friendship 7) to get out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Out of all the great performances in the film, it was Octavia Spencer who gained a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, however I felt Taraji P. Henson was the standout performer. Maybe it was because her storyline was more developed and she had a lot more to work with but she gives an understated yet strong performance. As the story goes on you really feel for Katherine Goble, who through no real fault of her own has to put up with the prejudices of the time. Her scenes with Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, (as head engineer Paul Stafford) and with the always welcome Kevin Costner (as the director of the Space Task Group Al Harrison) are some of the films highlights. The two actors provide a degree of tension as Katherine ends up being the smartest person in the room, much to Paul’s (and the team’s) displeasure. Al Harrison is introduced as a particularly formidable authority figure however as the film goes on, he is one of the more progressive characters portrayed and Costner delivers quite a few crowd pleasing scenes.
There is much to enjoy whilst watching the film however certain plot lines were slightly underwritten, including an amusing but clichéd love story between Katherine Goble and Mahershala Ali’s Military officer Jim Johnson. In some ways the lightness in tone works against the film and there are only so many times you can watch Goble run half a mile to the ‘Coloured’ Ladies Toilet and back. Whilst all the Best Picture nominees this year were all very different films, after the film had finished I wasn’t overly surprised that it wasn’t one of the favourites to win this year compared with Moonlight or La La Land.
Regardless of this it is refreshing to see a film that tells a serious story but also brings a feel good factor. The portrayal of segregation is done extremely well and it is almost unbelievable that it took place not that long ago. There is also some great use of archival footage interspersed between the drama playing out on screen. It is fascinating to see and gives you a sense of what America was like in 1961. The three main players deliver fantastic performances and help elevate the story to make it an essential watch. You’ll be researching the ins and outs of this incredible true story long after you have left the cinema.