Both the American civil rights movement and forays into space are favourite subjects for film, although from an almost entirely male (and in the latter case white) perspective. As such it is not entirely unexpected that the stories of the black women of Hidden Figures have remained untold and mostly unknown for so long.
On reading the script (written by Theodore Melfi who also directs and produces the film) for the first time, Octavia Spencer, who plays one of the lead roles, believed that she was reading historical fiction. She was, in fact, reading a script based on the true story of the women who worked as mathematicians for NASA in the 1960s and who were integral to America’s successful space missions to the moon.
The film is centred around “firsts” and the importance, even necessity, of being first. America’s ambition to put the first man of the moon is knitted together with a series of firsts for the film’s lead women. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the first woman in her division of the Space Task Group to be credited as an author on a research report; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) becomes the first female black engineer to work at NASA; and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the first black supervisor of a NASA committee. These personal victories are paired with victories on an even larger scale; the abolishment of segregated bathrooms, and the admittance of the first black woman into a segregated school. But the film ensures that the relentlessly daunting and de-moralizing, as well as frustrating, effects of such segregation are felt before it paints the relief and celebration of their dissolution.
These frustrations are cleverly emphasised by the repetition of carefully chosen scenes and encounters – Johnson repeatedly running to the bathroom (the only “coloured” bathroom being in a different building 40 minutes away); Vaughan being repeatedly snubbed by her white superiors; and Johnson’s name repeatedly being removed from reports which rely entirely on her work. These repetitions reveal the mental and emotional struggle of these women, and work to create suspense for the film’s eventual triumphs.
The spirit of progress is embodied by Vaughan, and Spencer gives her strength as an actress not only to her character but to the film as a whole. She gives the film its backbone, propelling forward the narrative and refusing to progress without ensuring that her fellow black women progress with her. Individual success is not enough; she demands equal opportunity to succeed for all.
She underpins many of the film’s concerns and highlights some of the subtler issues which might otherwise have gone overlooked – particularly the way in which equality is often viewed as a threat by those who profit from inequality.
Both Spencer and Monae are grossly underused and their stories require greater integration, but their performances are powerful enough to make their characters poignant parts of the film without needing to command the most screen time. Together with Henson, their trio forms the heart of the film, giving it joy and conviction, momentum, and the spirit of celebration.
Spencer’s Oscar nomination is more than deserved, but Henson’s lack of nominations is bewildering.
Her performance is incredible. She brings to her role and to the film an acute humanity and a depth of emotion that should be the goal of all artistic endeavours. She becomes a hero whose power is in her ability to endure and overcome, despite the need to do so being a product of the very injustice she is standing against. Her heroics are not in her stoic invincibility but in her vulnerability, her passion, and her steady hand under pressure. She is allowed to be angry without ever being reduced to the stereotype of “angry black woman,” and she is allowed to thrive in her career without sacrificing her role as a mother or her romantic life (neither is the man in her life emasculated or intimidated by her success). Both the writing of her character, and Henson’s portrayal of her, are brilliantly multifaceted.
What isn’t quite as brilliant as expectation might have assumed, especially given that it was produced and partially written by Pharrell Williams, is the soundtrack. The music matches the film perfectly in tone, and mood, and by experimenting with different sounds and genres, is able to reflect the film’s switch between personal and historical. However, at times the music, and particularly Pharrell’s distinctive voice, are slightly distracting, disrupting a film that is otherwise incredibly well knit together.
The film’s cohesion is its greatest strength; the historic is made personal, and the individual is made historic. The balance of the film’s dual focus – the personal lives of these women and the historical moment of which they are a part – is achieved through the skillful blending of scenes which depict the two focuses separately and simultaneously.
Interwoven with historical footage, the film places a continual emphasis on the momentous importance of the actions of individuals in effecting change and progress.
As such, the story is an inspiration, reflecting the inclusion which it champions in all aspects and giving us three heroes who could not have arrived at a more necessary time.