Cinestudio Preview: "Hidden Figures" Aims High

The remarkable thing about “Hidden Figures” is how unremarkable the central characters set out to be. Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Katherine G. Johnson emphasizes the humility necessary to get by in a world caught in the throes of bigotry, even at NASA in 1962. Johnson and her two best friends Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) have an unspoken understanding that in order to keep their jobs as “computers” for the space program, they will likely need to keep their heads down. NASA was, after all, accepting enough to accept the crucial mathematical data of a team of African-American women, but not enough to allow them access to a nearby bathroom or give them anywhere near the credit they were due. It’s a time of transition, where some of the more enlightened scientists at the space program are willing to give Johnson as much a chance as the next mathematician. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, a tough-talking leadership figure who looks out for Henson’s character when he gets the chance. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons play similar characters who are perfectly comfortable working alongside their black coworkers as long as they don’t upstage them in any way. The NASA workspace is plagued by the subtle racism of lowered expectations, and worse. But the three women, breaking barriers for both their gender and their race, arrive at success after success.
The three hidden figures are far and away the best mathematicians working to get a man into space, and it isn’t long before they have each knocked a chalkboard problem clear out of the park as an audience of white mathematicians looks on, shocked to see their work reproduced so quickly. If you’ve seen a math-centered movie before, you know the scene. Defying general doubts, the main character dashes off thirty seconds worth of numbers and letters until suddenly: It can’t be! How could they have solved it? These chalkboard epiphanies are scattered generously throughout the movie, but they have more power here than in other films. The stakes are higher, and the doubting opposition more enjoyable to prove wrong. After being politely humiliated in the face of Johnson’s mathematical superpower, Dunst and Parsons spend the remainder of their scenes pale and wide-eyed as Costner’s character gives more and more authority to the often more talented “colored” mathematicians. It’s a great victory, but Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson want only to remain employed. The three women are careful to appear respectful, quiet and complacent, even as the towering unfairness of their situation at NASA becomes clear. Patience is the name of the game, and the three brilliant women only succeeded by swallowing their pride constantly, even when it would be much more gratifying to complain about what they know is unfair, and intolerant.
Janelle Monae continues to impress in her relatively new role as an actress, and Octavia Spencer dominates her scenes. It’s Taraji P. Henson who is placed at the center of the story, though, and who is ultimately responsible for the most memorable performance. Henson is gifted at showing two emotions at one time, in this case, she is able to show Katherine Johnson’s brilliant mind burning behind a calm, reserved exterior. “Figures” is certainly a career milestone for all three actresses.
The climax of the story comes when the team helps to safely return John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Most of the film’s budget was poured into the scenes of the Friendship 7 rocket launch, but the true emotional victory is the success earned by the Hidden Figures themselves after so many grueling obstacles. Hidden Figures is a masterfully crafted historical film written in praise of the unifying power of human endeavor. It is also designed to convey the idea that even the most intelligent people in the world must work to master their own prejudices, and draw greatness from a pool of people who truly are “the best of the best.”

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