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The Oberlin Review

Henson Delivers Memorable Performance in Hidden Figures

Christian Bolles, Columnist

An oft-ignored ingredient of successful filmmaking is the importance of managing expectations. It’s the coating on the cinematic pill, and it distinguishes movies that appeal to a wide audience over those that find a smaller niche. There are many successful films that subvert their premises, yet divide viewers in doing so; La La Land, which begins as a glitzy musical and transitions to a relationship drama halfway through, is one recent example that garnered critical praise but widespread criticism from general audiences.

Somewhere on the other end of the spectrum rests writer/director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. Hidden Figures is a vehicle for a story and quite a good one: Three Black women working at NASA in the early ’60s played key roles in edging out Russia in the space race, yet went largely unrecognized. It’s also a vehicle for stars — namely, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. The film performs as well as any viewer could hope — it succeeds in being itself, and given the scope of its narrative, that’s no small feat.

A sub-par script waters down a revelatory story, but the fantastic central cast elevates its every word, resulting in a satisfying mixture of colorful period visuals and punchy plot beats that fulfill the promise of its setup. Hidden Figures is exactly what it should be: a feel-good prestige drama that tells a memorable story with worthy performances.

It wouldn’t feel right to credit Melfi with Hidden Figures’ success. His directing is competent, but his screenplay isn’t nearly as ambitious as the plot, initially presented in the book of the same name upon which the film is based. At one point, a character tells another, “Stop quoting your slogans at me.” The same could be asked of the script, which consistently reaches for a level of cleverness that Melfi simply can’t conjure; when Katherine (Henson) tells a coworker that she was given until the end of the day to complete her work, the coworker responds, “The end of the day around here is yesterday.” It’s a witty retort, but ultimately doesn’t add much to the film.

Similarly, the script often tries to appear to make bold statements about racism and notions of freedom through wordplay rather than substance, as when Mary’s (Monáe) husband tells her, “Civil rights aren’t always civil.” While a clever turn of phrase, a better writer would go to some effort to drive the point home, either by addressing anti-Black violence as an undercurrent of the film’s events or by giving a glimpse into the husband’s life that examines how his belief in hands-on resistance is at odds with Mary’s more reserved approach to combating systematic racism. The screenplay does neither, but fortunately, the directing takes advantage of the charged premise.

Melfi knows how much power lies in the image of a Black woman walking into a room full of surprised white men: it’s the driving emotional force behind Hidden Figures and rightly so. The course of the film sees its three heroines work their way up to a place of respect among their colleagues at NASA, and the sheer satisfaction of watching them prevail is like candy, a confection that the film knows exactly how and when to dole out. Ultimately, this is a tale of pure inspiration, and Hidden Figures deals that feeling in spades.

It helps, of course, that these are characters worth caring about beyond their genius. Katherine is the ostensible protagonist; her incredible gift for all things mathematical propels her into Space Task Group, a body working to calculate flight trajectories for spacecraft, making her story a compelling centerpiece. The film struggles to lend the same attention to Dorothy (Spencer) and Mary, both occupying well-told but peripheral subplots that could have used more screen-time. However, the actors compensate well by breathing life into their characters.

A seasoned veteran, Spencer’s talent is well-known in the industry, and she delivers a reliably excellent performance here. Even more impressive — but not surprising to anyone who’s seen her short but sweet role in Moonlight — is Monáe, whose cutting wit and poise consistently steal the stage. Initially a singer/songwriter, her range of talent is truly unique. Monáe’s Moonlight love interest, the unstoppable Mahershala Ali, is also featured in Hidden Figures, and brings all the understated power audiences have come to expect.

The final notable supporting performance is delivered by the legendary Kevin Costner as the head of the STG. A surprisingly progressive, tough supervisor with a gum-chewing habit to rival Sean Spicer’s, Costner’s embodiment of Al Harrison is a joy to watch, while also being subtle enough to avoid vying for attention with the real star of the show: Henson. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Hidden Figures is worth watching for her performance as Katherine alone. Able to display impressive endurance, fiery resistance and quiet hurt in turns, Henson supplies a perfect cornerstone for an already imposing central cast that rivals Moonlight’s ensemble. It’s rare that a single awards season contains two such incredible casts, but here they are.

Hidden Figures is gorgeous, with popping colors and a meticulously honed ’60s aesthetic. It’s a beautiful way to frame an expansive story that, by its emotional third act, becomes a compelling tale of triumph that will satisfy anyone willing to overlook some initial rough patches of sparse character work. All told, it’s a gripping, vital film that has brought a criminally overlooked story into the limelight, grossing over $144 million worldwide already. Though Hidden Figures could have used a better script, its brilliant cast deserves every accolade granted this awards season.

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Established 1874.
Henson Delivers Memorable Performance in Hidden Figures