This movie was number 10 on my Top 10 films of 2016. It might not be a perfect movie. It might be corny at times, but…I sat there with a huge smile on my face, and it made me feel so damn happy. It’s the type of inspirational, old-fashioned movie we seemed to see a lot of in the ‘70s. The film chronicles the stories of three African-American women overcoming some major obstacles, and are all based on real people and events. They dealt with the sexism and racism of the time and they prevailed. It’s impressive that director (and co-writer Ted Melfi) could give us instances of segregation that were powerful, but didn’t distract from the story or hammer us over the head every 10 minutes. Sometimes filmmakers really want to drive home the racism point, and it’s not done right. For example, earlier this year, we had the movie Loving. It was a bore fest; and Birth of a Nation was a mess for about 10 different reasons.
It’s the early ‘60s, and the United States is losing the space race to those pesky Ruskies. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the director of the Space Task Group, and they’re trying to get the Friendship 7, John Glenn’s attempt to orbit the Earth, off the ground (pun intended). The math figures (get it?) aren’t adding up. There’s a segregated area of NASA where a group of black women worked. We get to follow the story of three of them. There’s math whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), manager Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and future engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). They all drive to work together (sometimes being hassled by cops), and work in the same office computing numbers. Dorothy wants a pay raise, to be paid what the white managers make. Her scenes with Kirsten Dunst are perfect. The look, and tone of voice, you get is not over the top. The subtle condescension in her voice gets your blood boiling.
Mary and Katherine get called over to work with the white crew. Mary immediately seems to get respect from one of the engineers she’s working with, perhaps because he’s a foreigner. It’s a lot tougher for Katherine. She’s clearly the smartest cookie in the room, but she has to deal with Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory). His snarky tone is also frustrating, and again…it was perfectly done. He’s not as a big of a jerk as he could’ve been, but he’s a jerk nonetheless. And it’s great to watch Harrison slowly realize she knows more, and should be doing a lot more. Of course, it does lead to one of two missteps for the film. Harrison smashing the bathroom sign that’s for blacks. The previous scene that doesn’t work, also involving a bathroom. It has Katherine running all the way to another building, sometimes in the rain. My wife and I couldn’t figure out why she had to bring all her work with her. Perhaps it’s so she can drop her many books, and have to pick them up off the ground, like it’s a bad sitcom.
Obviously, you’ll enjoy the scenes at NASA best, but when the women are at home, it humanizes them. Katherine is raising children by herself, and trying to teach them life lessons. She also has a suitor in the wings, played by Mahershala Ali (so terrific as the drug dealer in Moonlight).
Mary (Monae) likes to flirt a lot, even with the astronauts. She also has her struggles when she’s told she can’t go to a white college to get her engineering degree.
There are a few scenes that will have tears of joy streaming down your face. One of those involve a gift, and it’s the sweetest gift giving scene I have seen in a decade.
So the movie is a tad predictable, and has a few flaws. But this is the type of film that’s perfect for the whole family (it has a PG rating), or for classroom viewing.
The soundtrack is solid and upbeat. It’s got a Hans Zimmer score, as well as songs from Ray Charles, Wynonie Harris (Don’t Take My Whiskey Away), Mary J. Bilge, Alicia Keys, and Pharrell Williams, who’s also one of the producers. Janelle Monae is on a few tracks, and this singer turned actress just had some nice supporting work in Moonlight, too. She and I talked about Hidden Figures at the Critics’ Choice awards, and I couldn’t be happier for her success.
As sad as it was to hear about John Glenn’s passing recently, as I told Monae, hopefully it gets more interest generated for this film. Otherwise, this might be a tough sell.
I’m giving it 4 stars out of 5.
For an interview Josh Board did with director Ted Melfi, click here: http://fox5sandiego.com/2016/10/18/hidden-figures-an-interview-with-the-talented-director/