When watching Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine G. Johnson, running half a mile to the ‘coloured bathroom’, in heels, in the pouring rain, clutching several textbooks, each with key information covered in marker pen as it’s classified African Americans – there’s an overwhelming sense of anger that kicks in, unable to quite comprehend how people were treated, even at a huge company like NASA, simply because of the colour of their skin. It’s therefore quite remarkable that Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures remains such a hopeful, uplifting and profound drama, albeit one that will piss you off no end.
Katherine is a maths genius who works for NASA, in a room kept seperate from where the white people work, as she strives tirelessly, alongside colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), to do the sums that ensure man can be sent into space. With the Russians speeding ahead, America have got somewhat competitive, and need some assistance trying do the unthinkable, and send astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space – and so Katherine is promoted to a new assignment, becoming the very first black woman to assist the unforgiving Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) at the top table. Wanting her to complete a whole myriad of tasks – and on a very strict deadline – she has to do without being privy to certain information, simply because she’s African American, and for no extra money either. Though as time ticks down, they realise she may be their only hope of getting the rocket, quite literally, off the ground.
Hidden Figures may well abide frustratingly to convention, as a film that could be described, affectionately, as pure Oscar fodder – but there’s a distinctive charm to this piece, despite the inclination to ensure all loose ends are tired at the close of play. The film works as a real history lesson, not only in the study of culture and society, but also in astrophysics, as a comprehensive examination of everything that goes on behind the scenes at an organisation like NASA. The performances bring this true story to life in emphatic fashion too, and had it not been for the remarkable competition this year, Henson would surely have been gifted an Academy Award nomination. There was one, however, for Spencer, who is as impressive as ever, though it’s Monae who steals the show from the supporting cast, as an actress that demands the viewer’s attention every time she’s on screen, with a quiet fury about her demeanour, complete with a playful edge that is incredibly engaging.
Monae even provides the film with one of its very best tracks, emblematic of a soundtrack that you’ll feel compelled to own. To inject modern songs into a period piece is so often a challenging task, but one that works seamlessly on this occasion. I mean, when you leave the composing of the score down to Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, what else could you possibly expect?