Hidden Figures

 

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Here is a mainstream movie successfully calculated to have wide appeal.

 

Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson stands out

 

This is a film that succeeds admirably in doing what it set out to do although what that is comes as something of a surprise. On paper, Hidden Figures sounds like the kind of serious drama that some audiences might choose to avoid because it doesn't sound very entertaining. Some critics may take the view that that would nevertheless have been the right approach for the film to take since this is a work with a factual basis set largely in Virginia in 1961 and showing how three African-American women played important roles there working for NASA. In those days the employment of women in such work, especially if done at a high level, was itself looked at askance by many. Furthermore, this was also a time when segregation was built in to how life was lived in Virginia. Consequently, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), brilliant in mathematics even as a child, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are important figures not just on a personal basis but as models to inspire other women and other African-American women in particular.

 

Theodore Melfi, director and co-writer with Allison Schroeder, has set out to follow the facts and yet to convert them into a popular entertainment. Katherine working under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is shown to play a key part in getting John Glenn safely into space and back again. Mary has to fight to become a qualified engineer (it entails taking a course at a school which until then has been exclusively for whites) and Dorothy has to persuade the likes of Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) that she is deserving of the rank of supervisor. However, we first meet the trio when their car has broken down and a policeman coming on the scene is taken aback to discover that they are NASA employees. This episode immediately sets a comic tone with much of the humour residing in males having to recognise their prejudices in undervaluing women. It's an element that allows Hidden Figures to come across in part as a feel-good movie even if the climax briefly permits drama to dominate (not that the earlier tone prevents Henson and Monáe from being given a couple of strong film-stealing speeches).

 

In point of fact, unexpected through this is, one feels that, if Hidden Figures represents Hollywood consciously turning way from being too white, the film can be seen in essence as a variation on such popular films as 9 to 5 (1980) and The First Wives Club (1996) for they too were entertainments featuring a trio of actresses in the lead roles but, whereas they were white, these three are not. Although Costner has real authority here, his is in truth a supporting role and Henson, Spencer and Monáe are the stars who play in such accord that one fully understands why at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January they were declared winners for their work as an ensemble. The popular style chosen by Melfi could lead to this film having the same kind of wide appeal enjoyed in 2011 by The Help if only the publicity can make clear how engaging a mainstream audience will find this movie. 

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Saniyya Sidney.

Dir Theodore Melfi, Pro Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping and Pharrell Williams, Screenplay Alison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Ph Mandy Walker, Pro Des Wynn Thomas, Ed Peter Teschner, Music Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch, Costumes Renée Ehrlich Kalfus.

 

Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/Levantine Films/TSG Entertainment-20th Century-Fox.
127 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 17 February 2017. Cert. PG.