Handling heavy subjects, such as racial inequality, requires a certain amount of tact. You need to make your point, but you don’t want to get too overt to where you lose focus on your characters and the story at hand. Many films strive to make a great statement, but end up dramatically inert, usually causing the intent to fall on deaf ears due to no emotional investment.

Hidden Figures takes place at the height of the Space Race during the early 1960’s. Mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) becomes the first black woman to join NASA’s Space Task Group team, being a key component in calculating the trajectories of their first manned orbit around the Earth.  Her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), also begin receiving significant advancements in their fields of study, as their expertise and prowess begins to impress others. However, as much as these women are able to advance themselves, the current constructs of their society always seem to keep them down.

For a film dealing with racial issues in 1960’s America, I was surprised by how much fun the filmmakers decided to have with the material. While the themes are inherently dramatic, they undercut a lot of these horrific moments with some moments of levity, whether it be Kevin Costner’s cantankerous program director, or Janelle Monáe’s constant sass. There’s an inherent earnestness in this film, where it feels both eager to please and inform. Director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi and his co-writer Allison Schroeder balance the two tones perfectly, making you disgusted by the racism one moment, but laughing the next when one of the women make light of their predicaments. It’s a fantastic representation of real life, where we often use humor to bring light to awful situations. Melfi’s direction is fantastic, using cinematography to his advantage in conveying emotion. When the characters at at their lowest points, they’re draped in shadows, in contrast to the brightly lit shots while they’re being successful. There’s a lot of great visual storytelling that you don’t often find in these types of films.

While racial inequality is the main issue being discussed here, the filmmakers did a great job at immersing your into the political climate at the time, as well. When we’re not seeing rampant racism take place, we’re treated to the politics going on at the time, such as the escalating tensions of the Cold War. These little elements make the film much more immersive, as you’re not just experiencing these characters, but the world they lived in. It’s a shame that these aspects couldn’t have been handled more tactfully, though. A lot of the racial aspects of the film are blatantly in your face, usually being delivered by stock racist stereotypes. While this accurately represents the time period, where racism was this horribly blatant and exposed, when you’re making a film about it, it’s best to be a bit more subtle. I couldn’t help but groan when Kevin Costner knocked down the “Colored Only” bathroom sign, then claiming, “At NASA, we all pee the same color.”

As our characters are constantly facing constant oppression, the optimism they keep through their attitudes and hard work make you feel inspired. It helps that the three leads are all fantastic, with wonderful chemistry with each other. They each have their own fully defined personalities, complete with their own little arcs and subplots. While the subplots give them a bit more to do, I felt a lot of them were very underdeveloped, therefore not having much impact. Halfway through the film, Henson falls in love with a character played by Mahershala Ali (that guy seems to be in everything now), and after two scenes together, they’re already madly in love and ready to wed. A lot of these little elements don’t really add much else to the overall story. We get everything we need from the main events, as their characters are perfectly developed through them. Regardless, I loved learning about the impact these three women had.

Hidden Figures is one of the films that seems like all it wants to do is lift your spirits. It’s a moving story about three inspiring women who overcame seemingly impossible odds to do what they dreamed of doing. However, it’s also a fantastic tale about how if we all put our prejudices aside and truly work together as a human race, extraordinary things can be achieved. As the film covers one of our country’s darkest chapters in how we treated our citizens, it also serves a reminder that there’s always a ray of light to be found, if you really look for it. It’s the perfect movie that could be shown in schools. It’s funny, dramatic, smart, educational, and completely inoffensive. An all-around solid film.


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