The fact that it’s taken this long for the story to reach the screens is shameful. However, not surprising, given the more obvious heroics performed by the astronauts themselves (immortalised in 1979’s The Right Stuff). The timing, however, is perfect, as it follows on from the drama of the “#OscarsSoWhite” scandal of 2016. It’s also an account of marginalised characters playing a crucial role in American history, paralleled today with America’s immigration issues. You’d be hard pressed to find a group of people more ostracised and patronised in 1960s America than black women. Taking its cue from the women themselves though, the picture doesn’t whinge about their plight or society’s prejudice. Instead, it takes inspiration from the women’s brilliance, dignity and good humour. Focusing on their astonishing achievements and the qualities it took for them to be realised.
Shot by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker, Theodore Melfi directs the film with Oscar-baiting embellishment. Predictably, this includes an overly dramatic moment where Johnson steps totally out-of-character. Giving an impressive speech that ensures everybody gets the point about how wrong racism is. Yet far more effective are the less theatrical scenes of confrontation. Dorothy delivers a subdued and dignified demand for an overdue promotion. While the determined Mary fights for her right to pursue an engineering pathway at NASA. There’s is a dramatic moment where Katherine’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) bashes away at a “coloured only” sign. Not because he resents what it represents though, but because it’s getting in the way of his mission. However, special praise goes to Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons. They play stock-standard ignorant white folk, who must begrudgingly accept they live in a changing world. Eventually surrendering to the change with subtlety and grace.
Hidden Figures has picked up three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress for Spencer. Based on the book of the same name by Hampton native Margot Lee Shetterly, the story centres on the main characters. However, they represent thousands of NASA employees who have made contributions to aviation and space exploration, in America’s 100-year history. The film is up against macho action-dramas like Hacksaw Ridge, where one white man saves the day as per usual. Nonetheless, Hidden Figures does a very good job of making it clear that the all-American hero can be female, gifted and black.
Hidden Figures is an upbeat and often moving story about overcoming adversity, with talent prevailing against the odds.