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Hidden Figures Review: Making history fun

Posted January 6

Hidden Figures is one of those movies that critics have already fallen in love with. It could snag a couple Oscar nominations, but here in the Triangle, we are only just now getting to see it. Ah, the frustrations of living in a mid-level movie market!

The movie tells the true story of three African-American women who were real life geniuses and pioneers at NASA. Katherine Gobel (Empire’s Tajiri P. Henson) is our main focus, but her best friends and colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (The Help’s Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Moonlight’s Janelle Monet) get plenty of screen time.

Hidden Figures tries to ride the line between a biopic and a comedy all in the name of making a feel good family movie. A few of the jokes go on too long. Too many times the story spins its wheels showing multiple examples of the same racial injustice, but it succeeds in its mission for the most part.

The movie starts with a brief look at Katherine Gobel as a kid, but our story really begins with the three women broken down on the side of the road and late for work in the segregated West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Center. A cop pulls up and the women prepare themselves to deal with the nonsense black women had to deal with in the 1960s, but as soon as the cop finds out the women work at NASA, they are given a police escort to the main gate.

We meet the stuffy Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, who at some point got old enough to look like she could play a middle-aged bitty), Al Harrison (Kevin Costner - more on this in a moment), the man tasked with winning the Space Race for the USA and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons - again, more on this in a moment) the sniveling nerd/wannabe genius who will become Katherine’s boss.

Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group as a computer, which is what NASA used to call the women that were brought in to check the scientists’ math. Katherine is a numbers savant and the only person qualified to check the math for a team that is having to create a new type of math in order to put a man in space.

Mary, who is something of a pet project for the NASA scientist who designs the space capsule that John Glenn will orbit the Earth in, fights to enroll in one of Virginia’s segregated schools so she can take the necessary courses to become a NASA engineer.

Dorothy passive-aggressively fights with Mrs. Mitchell, who expects Dorothy to do the work of a supervisor but will not give her the title or pay raise that should come with it. After months of this back and forth, Dorothy decides to learn all she can about the new IBM that has just been delivered to Langley and make herself indispensable.

Look, this is a historical movie based on actual events surrounding the first manned U.S. missions to space. If you’ve read a history book, you know what happens. There’s not much sense in doing a lot of recap.

Let’s talk about Kevin Costner, who seems to be settling nicely into his boss/gizzled vet years. Do you realize we are 25 years past the release of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? I’m sure plenty of women still find Costner attractive, but his days of constant leading man work are way behind him. Also, movie choices like The Postman or 3000 Miles to Graceland didn’t inspire any lasting confidence in his drawing power by Hollywood execs. So, here’s Kevin Costner in 2017, a new, handsomer version of Danny Glover.

Now let’s talk about Jim Parsons. I hate Jim Parsons, and I don’t just mean in this movie. I mean I HAAAAAAAAATE Jim Parsons. I find him, and everything else about Big Bang Theory, to be the opposite of comedy and I harshly judge those that disagree. I don’t think he has a ton of range. You know who he’s playing in Hidden Figures? The same guy he plays in Big Bang Theory just without a catch phrase.

I’m not going to lie and say “I’m not even trying to be mean.” I am. His presence in this film, or anything else that doesn’t allow him to shout “BAZONGAS!” or whatever it is, makes no sense.

There are plenty of moments in Hidden Figures that really resonate. One of them involves Dorothy, who first watches her friend Mary go to work on building capsules that will orbit the Earth. Then, she watches Katherine join the Space Task Group. Her friends are succeeding in their new adventures and she is left to do far more work than her paycheck or job description cover.

While the three women are in the car heading home Dorothy says, “I know that movement for any of us is movement for all of us. It just isn’t movement for me.” What a humanizing line and moment. It is something that is missing from a lot of movies about the struggle for civil rights in the 60s. Yes, this was a big fight that was about America’s entire black population, but that population was made up of complex individuals who sometimes grew frustrated with their individual situation and whose feelings sometimes got hurt.

I really liked Hidden Figures. It’s a light history lesson with plenty of moments of brevity to keep things moving. Sure, the romance angle between Katherine and a local colonel, who is back to set up a new recruiting station in Virginia for the Army doesn’t exactly work, but that’s because what is going on in Katherine’s professional life is so much more interesting.

It’s so appropriate right now that we have a movie reliving the Space Race and the Cold War like this. I’m not sure what our relationship with Russia is now, but more than evoking thoughts of how much our two countries used to hate each other, Hidden Figures kind of reminds you how good it feels to beat an arch rival when the stakes are so damn high.


Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.

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