Hidden Figures

The space race hit its legendary stride in 1962, when John Glen became the first American astronaut to orbit planet Earth. After being one-upped by Russian cosmonauts, NASA got the edge it needed in exploring the cosmos and advancing their space program. What very few people knew was the involvement of three remarkable African-American women during the groundbreaking mission.

“Hidden Figures” is a flawed but involving, long overdue portrayal of what these women endured and accomplished during their amazing careers at NASA. We meet the endearing, nerdy Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) and her best friends Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer), as they drive to their first day on the job. We’re immediately struck by the obstacles facing these three black women, employed in a 60’s workplace and living in a society tainted by racism, segregation and sexism.

Director Theordore Melfi’s previous film, “St. Vincent,” overcame the potentially corny qualities of its screenplay and shaped a character-driven comedy with right touch of grit and heart. With his latest film, Melfi goes a little too soft. If the intention was to make a movie that reaches the widest possible audience and present a family-friendly version of the events, then mission accomplished. Yet, I kept thinking that Melfi is often presenting an overly gentle depiction of a much tougher, more in-depth story

“Hidden Figures” plays like a cross between “The Help” and “The Right Stuff.” Unfortunately, it’s as corny as the former and nowhere near as majestic as the latter. Presenting this history lesson with sass and a sense of empowerment is a welcome touch. Yet, at times, this plays as broadly as a Tyler Perry film.

The songs by Pharrell Williams are obtrusive and distractingly modern. The scene where Johnson (played by Henson) must make the first of many sad runs to a “Coloreds Only” bathroom in another NASA building should hit hard. Instead, the sequence is set to a bouncy Williams tune and makes the dignity-testing moment feel inappropriately comical. There are more scenes of Henson running in this movie than there are of Arnold Schwarzenegger running in all of “The Running Man.” Instead of making us understand the racist work practices Johnson endured, these scenes are redundant.

Henson is playing the most complex, fascinating character in the film and Monae has a great scene, late in the film, set in a courtroom. Spencer’s role is under-developed but, as always, she evokes a piercing, quiet inner strength. As the gruff but open-minded supervisor who inspires Johnson, Kevin Costner is in fine form but Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst fail to bring any dimension to their one-note bigot roles.

All of the moments with John Glenn (embodied by a scene-stealing Glen Powell) are great. So are the quiet, powerful and too-brief scenes depicting racial violence and social injustice. “Hidden Figures” is too fixated on being a crowd pleaser and comes across more as a Hollywood movie than the in-depth, complex look at overcoming racism that is should have been.

I attended Space Camp in the 1980’s, once aspired to become an astronaut and never knew this story until recently. Had this been made as a documentary, it likely would have fleshed out the story and characters more. Yet, while there are exceptions, documentaries aren’t as widely distributed as they should be and often get lost. This film, with its moving end credits sequence, insures that this story won’t get lost.

“Hidden Figures” is too formulaic to hit as hard as it should. Still, there are enough moments here that sting and inspire. If it encourages young people with brains, ambition and an interest in the cosmos to pursue a career in science-related fields, then Melfi’s film will transcend its limitations.

Two and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly