‘Why have I not heard of these women before?’ has become the question from critics and audiences alike since the release of Hidden Figures. Why have the stories of three brilliant women’s pivotal role in NASA’s 1960 Space Program been omitted from the numerous history books that celebrate this iconic period? In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Taraji P. Henson said that she believes this story has come to our screens today because the world needs to hear it more than ever before.
Full of heart and confidence in its storytelling, Hidden Figures does indeed feel like a soothing balm that today’s society desperately needs. Adapted from Margot Lee Shatterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). These three women worked at Langley during the Space Race, where their talents were utilised in the mission to launch man into space. Set within the context of incessant sexism and racial segregation, it follows the triumphant journey of these women as they leave their mark on history, against all odds.
And what odds they were. These women were not allowed to sit in the front of a bus nor use a bathroom that did not indicate ‘colored’. They were restricted from borrowing public library books unless from the ‘colored’ section. Despite their skills and employment at NASA, they were continuously doubted by men around them. Hidden Figures is, however, not interested in telling a sob story about these odds. Rather, it’s dedicated to celebrating how the women overcame such challenges through hard work, perseverance and grace.
It succeeds on this front largely, due to the extraordinary characters at the center of its story and the equally extraordinary actresses that play them. Driving the narrative of the story as the math genius Johnson, Henson gives a reserved but powerful performance. The reliably brilliant Spencer is a perfect fit for the maternal Vaughan, who ensures that any advancement she gets within NASA enables continued employment for all the other black women in her department. Finally, Monae, in only her second major film role since Moonlight, brings the most amount of sass and heart to a movie chock full of it.
In the process though, many issues of race and sexism that Hidden Figures are raised in a simplistic way that only skims the surface of the issues that underpin them. Yet, the film is so self-assured that biting off more than it can chew does not significantly hinder its enjoyment as a rich and uplifting story. Hidden Figures is not trying to push the artistic boundaries of biographical storytelling. The important thing is that these stories are being told in a way that champions these unsung heroes. When you leave the theatre, this story has shown you that being an engineer or a mathematician is not constrained for people of a certain gender or color. And our children of present and future will know this, too.