Film Review: Hidden Figures (USA, 2016) dismantles segregation piece by piece

The ills of racial segregation have been well-documented in modern cinema; many pieces set in eras like the 60’s have tackled the absurdity and nonsensical way the division functioned in – mostly American – society even when black populations worked side by side with white populations. This is the core tension of Hidden Figures, the ingrained threat of which suppresses three black women who work at NASA despite what would go on to be crucial contributions to a much larger picture – and by larger picture I don’t just mean the well-known launch of the Friendship 7 mission of 1962 in which John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.

Such is the strength found in Theodore Melfi’s adaptation of Margot Shetterley’s non-fiction book, both of which transmute the tribulations of said three women into a reminder of how true progress consists of small individual victories, borne by determination and integrity. Yes, in this case brilliance is a big part of that, but it’s nowhere near the focus, unlike similar biopics such as 2014’s The Imitation Game. What Hidden Figures does well is shy away from what could have easily been a tale of exceptional genius, preferring to dismantle the functions of sexism and racism with logic and reason.

The now award-winning ensemble of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe portray Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively. All three are employed in low-ranking positions at NASA, and all three have brilliant, inquisitive minds that aspire for much more than what they are given. Though this isn’t a film of indignation, which is clear from the opening scene in which our protagonists are polite but frightened when a white male police officer stops to investigate a spot of car trouble. Segregation and discrimination has become something they anticipate and learn to live with, but not necessarily accept.

When those in power would rather lose the space-race against Russia than realise and address the gross inefficiency of policies within NASA – and wider society – that are based on discrimination, it adds an extra layer of palpable frustration to Hidden Figures. It begs the audience to feel the same subtle desperation mirrored so painfully by Henson, Spencer and Monáe who are, despite their potential, held down by a broken and incredibly stubborn system.

Spencer’s Dorothy is unable to attain the status of supervisor despite her filling the role anyway; Monáe’s Mary discovers that to become an aeronautical engineer on the Mercury capsule project she needs to beat a law in the State of Virginia that excludes those of colour from attending the only school that offers her degree; and Katherine – who some could say is the film’s lead – has to deal with catty office politics and self-congratulatory white men and women suppressing her obvious value to the entire Friendship 7 mission. Out of them all, Katherine takes these these injustices in her stride, a passivity which lifts the importance of Dorothy and Mary, who are relegated to supporting characters even though both are fiery vessels of discontent and assertiveness, something Katherine initially lacks.

This is a very well-executed dynamic between the group of women, all of whom support and empower each other in overcoming the barriers before them. They, like the other black characters in the film, can be categorised into two camps: those who accept, and those who seek (justice). Those who accept, like Katherine, are eventually spurred by those who seek, and this in particular allows Henson to give one of her most measured and dynamic performances to date.

The way Katherine holds onto frustration in an attempt to just “get on with it” and the way Henson juggles determination with exasperation is just awe-inspiring acting, at its peak in the film’s standout scene and the only time this mathematical genius strays from her quiet achiever persona. She sure stamps an impression on her white superiors, and all but spells out the uselessness of a segregation as simple as having no coloured bathrooms in the building in which she is meant to work.

The bathroom situation is but one of the casual forms of workplace segregation inserted into the narrative, but it’s the most utitlised. There are a few scenes in which Katherine is running – in heels – back and forth between the bathroom with stacks of stats and calculations she is required to double check for her white colleague, reiterating the lack of utility with or sense in what Katherine must put up with because – and as her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) quotes -“that’s the way things are”. It’s a phrase not even Harrison seems to believe though – and Costner does wonders with his reasonable yet oblivious character – as he realises the wrongs of segregation, not just because it’s cruel but because it’s ultimately an enormous impediment to making history.

Melfi’s job is easy with the quality of acting and the inherently moving story, but still the director knows how to capture the raw power of the film’s most important scenes. Though in the end Hidden Figures is very much like the success of the Friendship 7: it just wouldn’t have been possible without three beautiful, strong black women of insurmountable presence and charisma.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Hidden Figures is out in Australian cinemas now