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The City Journals

Dan's Review: "Hidden Figures" properly honors little-known pioneers

Jan 06, 2017 02:50AM ● By Dan Metcalf

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures - © 2016 – 20th Century Fox.

Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)

Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Karan Kendrick, Rhoda Griffis, Maria Howell, Aldis Hodge, Paige Nicollette, Gary Weeks, Saniyya Sidney.

Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Directed by Theodore Melfi.



Movies are a really bad way to learn history. The “based on” disclaimer/marketing tool seen before some films is something that I usually take with more than a few grains of salt. So, when I learned that Hidden Figures was based on the true stories of pioneering women of color who excelled at NASA during the civil rights movement, I was skeptical, to say the least, at how true their stories would be. More important, would the movie be any good?

Hidden Figures follows the career paths of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) as they rise from the ranks of human computers to larger responsibilities at NASA. Katherine’s story is featured more prominently throughout the film, focusing on her struggles as a single mother and finding romance with Army Colonel Jim Johnson (spoiler alert on the same last name). Even though they are gifted mathematicians, managers and show great potential as engineers, all three women face gender and racial discrimination from their white, male (and one female – Kirsten Dunst as “Vivian Mitchell”) supervisors. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, Katherine Johnson’s NASA supervisor who is forced to place the agency’s mission above racial and gender boundaries of the day. Defying the racial discord of the early 1960s, all three women persevere and work hard until they are recognized for their talents and character. The main historical moment around which the women work is John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) launch and orbit into outer space

Hidden Figures is a very good film that will make audiences feel very good. Henderson’s performance is beautifully done, exhibiting a certain innocence that is not lost as she toughens up in the face of unfair working conditions. Octavia Spencer gives another great supporting performance, while up-and-coming star Janelle Monáe provides just enough blunt determination to get the movie’s point across. These women endured years of discrimination, despite their stellar qualifications and training, and the cast expertly portrays their heretofore unknown contributions to an important moment in history.

Now, to the issue of “historic accuracy.” Most of the events depicted in Hidden Figures are true, but director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder took quite a few liberties with the timeline and the relationship between the three women (who didn’t really associate or work together as much as the film would have us believe). Despite these small discrepancies, Hidden Figures is accurate in portraying the lives of these women and their triumph over harsh opposition within an institution as prestigious as NASA.

Their stories are well told in Hidden Figures, even if not entirely accurate. 

Hidden Figures Trailer