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Review: Hidden Figures

Roslyn Hull

As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history.  IMDb 

I know this film has been showing for some time but all the major cinemas in town are still screening it daily and now I know why. It is fascinating, it is powerful and it is (unbelievably and mostly) true. See it while you can.

A film about women who broke their moulds, who pioneered in their fields and whom history has ignored? How could I NOT review this for HerCanberra?

Of course, there are characters who are composites of several real people, of course, incidents have been heightened dramatically to make a point and for emotional impact. However, this is indeed the story of real women working for NASA in the 1960s.

I knew that before the advent of IBM, a ‘computer’ was a person that was both accurate and speedy with maths but I had no idea of the level of genius hidden in the halls of the space program. That these women fought for their rights quietly but firmly is no surprise but what is heartening is the support from their partners, their community and even some co-workers.

Cinematically speaking the real surprise comes from the absolute lack of melodrama. Mary Jackson’s husband may be fighting for black rights but there is no grandstanding by him or any other male actor. The women are the first in just about every step they take but those steps are taken without an overblown soundtrack, without cheesy Hollywood moments and with great sincerity.

This integrity flows through the whole cast. Kevin Costner’s role as the under-pressure chief, Al Harrison, is a gift for him. Mahershala Ali has a quiet but profound presence as Katherine Johnson’s love interest – and watch this man, he is a long glass of talent. Jim Parsons is elegantly understated as a biased and bigoted scientist too BUT …

This film belongs to the women. The always wonderful Octavia Spencer delivers the quietest comment on racism ever with such grace that it undid me. Janelle Monáe – well damn girl, it isn’t enough that she is gorgeous, angel-voiced and oozing style, she can act too! She could walk away from her music career tomorrow and be a Hollywood star. Big snaps to Kirsten Dunst who could have played her role all wicked white queen but went for understated (and very effective) instead.

Then there is Taraji P. Henson playing the wonderful, wonderful Katherine G. Jackson. What a woman, what a mathematician, what a great screen character has been created out of the life of a real woman. When she finally lets rip at the casual bigotry of NASA (and her country in general) it is a great moment in the movie – and still avoids melodrama.

I also loved the way archival footage was blended into the film. It is seamless and used to great effect. So I must thank the director Theodore Melfi (who is also one of the writers) for bringing all these elements together with what is ultimately a deft touch.

This story could so very easily have lapsed into sermonising but it remains captivating throughout. Stay for the final credits to see the real women and a small but lovely note.

Roslyn saw this film as a guest of Limelight Cinema


Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand. More about the Author