‘Hidden Figures’ is an inspirational treat

Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Steven James
@StevenLeeJames

Hidden Figures is a biopic that actually honors the true story it’s based on.

The Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 has launched, and NASA is struggling to keep up. NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is promoted to reviewing the trajectory and navigation calculations for Project Mercury, the goal of which was to launch the first human into space. She is disrespected because of her race and gender. Her friends, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), two other brilliant black women working at NASA, are looking to become the organization’s first black supervisor and first black female engineer, respectively. They jump over hurdles the height of rocket ships to accomplish these goals.

Anyone and everyone will probably find something to enjoy in Hidden Figures. Based on the trailers, it looked like it was going to be cheap and corny, much like the unremarkable live-action Disney movies from the ’00s — Miracle, Glory Road and Invincible, among others. But with good direction, a tense and funny script and stellar performances, Hidden Figures is a wonderful reminder of why we go to the movies.

One of the things that makes Hidden Figures great is its well-rounded characters. They face discrimination, but aren’t victims. They are fully aware of their situation, but are intelligent and strong-willed enough to not let anything stand in their way.

With witty, realistic dialogue, Hidden Figures is surprisingly hilarious. It’s funny to watch Johnson outsmart the more conceited characters, especially when she is innocent about it, and to hear Vaughan and Jackson tell off the characters who are trying to put them down with racism or sexism. The serious parts of the movie are also handled well. Hidden Figures is one of the least terrifying films in recent years that tackles segregation, but it still sucks to watch Johnson running to the colored ladies’ restroom, nearly half a mile away from her work station, multiple times in the movie. Seeing Vaughan and her children escorted out of the public library by a large security guard just because they’re black is unsettling as well.

When Johnson does math problems, the camera goes to a close-up of her face. The movie becomes a more intense experience because you can now see her thinking process right there in front of you.

2016 had a lot of good female performances, including Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals, Viola Davis in Fences and Lou de Laâge in The Innocents, but Henson’s in Hidden Figures is definitely a standout. She pulls off showcasing Johnson’s quirky behavior, vulnerability and anger. She only has one outburst, but it’s genuine, and it’s hard to not be on her side. Spencer has been wowing audiences on a large scale ever since her award-winning performance in 2011’s The Help. Monáe, a relative newcomer to the acting game, is just as stellar.

The only bad things about the movie are the poor CGI and the out-of-place documentary footage from the ’60s. The spaceships aren’t the focus of the movie, but it would’ve been nice if writer/director/producer Theodre Melfi and team had put more care into those scenes, especially after working hard to make the audience feel the same level of stress as the characters. It’s not atypical for a period piece to use old reels to give the audience the feeling they’re actually watching something that takes place during that specific time period, but it wasn’t always edited well with the modern day footage.

Hidden Figures is neck-and-neck with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with a weekend box office of $21.8 million, compared to Rogue One’s $21.97 million. It could end up taking the top spot — the actual gap is less than $200,000, well within the margin of error. Rogue One had a good run, but it’s time to give money to a movie that wasn’t watered down by The Mouse.

Hidden Figures isn’t a masterpiece, but it is much better than the feel-good movie that was advertised in the trailers.

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