Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, is a film based on the novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. It stars Octavia Spencer, Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monae. They star as three of the African American women hired by NASA to calculate and process data that aided the American’s in the space race against the Soviets in the early 1960’s.
What is uncertain about the film is why it only warranted a Golden Globe nomination for Octavia Spencer. As a fan of her work, specifically her role as the beloved Minnie Jackson in 2011’s The Help, this felt like it was safely within the boundaries of her ability as an actress. As the sole award nominee, the expectation on her was clearly high. And while she delivered, she did so as a predictable Spencer-like character. Specifically, she seemed to evoke her role as Minnie Jackson as the stern but dry Dorothy Vaughan.
What was unpredictable about this movie is perhaps how demure and subtle Spencer’s role was in comparison to main character Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, and her spunky engineer companion Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae. What is unfair about Spencer’s Golden Globe nomination is that it does not give her castmates their due, as the majority of the film is spent patiently developing their stories. Spencer’s character, Dorothy Vaughan, has absolutely the slowest character development, really only beginning at the 50 minute mark of this 2 hour and 9 minute commitment.
What was perhaps the biggest hidden gem amongst the figures of this film was Janelle Monae’s performance as Mary Jackson. One of the highlights of her performance was when she gave a speech to the state court to grant her access to an all-white school to pursue an engineering diploma. The speech, which touches on the importance and the burden of being first to accomplish something, ties together the frustrations of the uniting space race and the stratification of race and gender. It does so in a way that makes audiences wish Mary Jackson has recited word for word in real life what Monae did in the movie, mostly because Monae delivers it with such earnestness and conviction you can’t help but be compelled.
Melfi’s film features the likes of Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, Katherine’s surprisingly progressive boss, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, her outsmarted co-worker, and Kirsten Dunst, who sports a terrible southern accent as Vivian Mitchell, Dorothy Vaughn’s conservative supervisor.
Overall, the film is patiently entertaining. It tackles the civil rights movement and race relations of the American sixties in a subtle yet frustratingly ever present way. Much in the same way that the characters tackle it, calmly but certainly, audiences are constantly reassured of where its story’s plot is.
The balance between illustrating the women’s personal and professional lives and their distinct conflicts was tricky, and at times felt like it perhaps put too much focus on an underdeveloped family life in a movie revolving around their work. However, the presence of such scenes added depth and high stakes to their professional lives, as it ensured the audience felt the sacrifice of work-life balance, just as the characters did.
Despite the hype surrounding Octavia Spencer’s performance, and so long as you’re not expecting mind boggling twists and thrills, this movie is a pleasant way to spend an evening.