The coffee is in a different pot.
The year is 1961, and nervous mathematician Katherine Johnson is an exceptionally bright woman assigned to NASA’s Space Task Group. Here, in a world of white men wearing detergent-commercial white shirts and grey pants and thin neckties, she feels like an anomaly. An anomaly who has to walk a couple of miles to go to the restroom for colored women, and one who — as mentioned — is given a different pot to drink her coffee out of.
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells us about the crucial contributions made by female African-American mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race, and, as the more effective of these films are wont to do, it does its eye-opening slowly.
It starts off shakily, for example. We see a young child picking out shapes from a stained glass door — “Isosceles, scalene, equilateral, rhombus, trapezoid,” are young Katherine’s first on-screen words — and drawing dodecahedrons before nodding determinedly from behind thick glasses. We are lectured on her prodigious mathematical talent, and the music swells in overwrought fashion as the opening titles begin. These montage-y starts to films always remind me of the “Previously on” sections on TV dramas, and that rarely bodes well. Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I became convinced I was watching a well-meaning film made without personality. Like a Ron Howard film, say, minus the secret sauce that makes his films so darned watchable.
Then, around the time Katherine discovered her coffee pot, I realised how strong this movie really is. It gives us a linear narrative with immensely predictable storytelling beats, certainly, but that simplistic unfolding lets us pay attention to the segregated details and the remarkable heroines the film celebrates. The actresses — the phenomenal Taraji P Henson as Katherine, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy and Janelle Monae (who is having a particularly amazing season) — are magnificent, and despite the schmaltz and simplicity of the narrative, their vibrance and character wins us over. I’d rather watch these immensely cool women perform mathematical heroics than Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game or Russell Crowe in Howard’s own A Beautiful Mind. Make no mistake, these minds are beautifuller.
Melfi’s unspectacular, solid storytelling consistently makes room for flavour — at one point the heat is illustrated beautifully by Pharell’s song, Runnin, which goes “Summertime in Virginia was an oven, all the kids eating ice cream with their cousins…” — and for inspiration. This was 1961, and the segregation — at a place like NASA, for God’s sake — was horrific. “Well, that’s NASA for you,” sighs a weary supervisor, played by the appropriately pale Kirsten Dunst. “Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”
It is this slowness that affects the entire space program, something noticed by Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group. Harrison is played by a gruff and wonderful Kevin Costner, an actor who constantly makes stakes seem to matter. The Russians lead the space race and he can’t stomach the idea that they might be smarter or more committed than his own men. They may, however, be less racist — and that is something he realises can surely get in the way.
The film is about three women — even though Katherine’s is the story firmly at the centre — and thus serves also as a story of support and sisterhood, about the way determined people seek out and form their own little communities regardless of odds. Soon after the opening credits, we meet these three distinct ladies around a stalled automobile. Katherine’s trying to start the car, Mary’s perched on the trunk, checking her makeup, and Dorothy’s lying under the car, trying to make it go. The dynamics are very clear, as is their thrill when a policeman offers to escort them to NASA. Mary takes the wheel and sticks the car firmly on the heels of the cop car, and as the other girls wonder why, she explains the rarity — and importance — of a moment in 1961 with three black women chasing a police car.
Hidden Figures tells us a genuinely inspirational story in obvious fashion, and is buoyed by the performances all around. Henson is remarkable as Katherine, creating an unassuming, professional hero for the ages. At one point, a gent is perplexed that women get to do such “heavy” theoretical lifting at NASA, and she snaps into quickwitted anger. Women do work, she emphasises. “It’s not because we wear skirts,” she says, a half-smile appearing on her face as she realises the cleverness of her freshly conceived retort, “it’s because we wear glasses.” Bravo.
Rating: 3.5 stars
First published Rediff, February 17, 2017