Brining history to life through cinema has been a common means of retelling important stories. These films have become a common part of cinema today, especially during Awards Season. There is always at least one “based on a true story” film that gets major recognition during Oscar time.
Vying to be that film is Hidden Figures. Set in 1961, the film follows three African American woman (played respectively by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae), who strive to help NASA complete their first successfully space launch, as well as defy the standards of segregation.
Despite falling into the pratfalls of conventional biopics, Hidden Figures is a solid film that is able to make the importance of its true story come to life. I would not be shocked to see this film sneak into the Oscar race.
What truly elevates this material is the strong performances. Taraji P. Henson is dynamic in the leading role, brining mathematician Katherine Johnson to life. We feel every trial and tribulation she goes through, and makes the most out of her big dramatic moments. Octavia Spencer is solid as always, offering equal doses of prestige and sass. Janelle Monae has a fine future ahead of her as an actress, stealing nearly ever scene she is in.
Surrounding that strong core are quite a few solid supporting players. I have always been a big Kevin Costner fan, as he brings presence to any role he embodies. He is quite good, as he and Henson’s chemistry is also strong. Glen Powell, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali all make the most of their limited screen time with solid work.
The confidence of these performances in turn creates a sense of swagger. Most of the film’s highlight moments are when the core cast stand up for themselves, displaying intelligence and fighting for their rights. These moments led to the film’s most effective crowd-pleasing scenes, capturing the importance of the story at hand. Pharrell Williams’ original music is also a welcome addition, bolstering scenes with some toe-tapping moments.
Hidden Figures achieves what a lot of historical retellings fail at by making its characters and situations feel genuine. Credit to screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi for grounding these characters in a since of reality, rather than portraying them as bland heroes. The duo also do solid work with some sharp one-liners and portraying the state of America at the time.
Where their work suffers is bitting off a bit more than they could chew. The duo try to encompass many aspects surrounding these characters lives that it becomes a bit too much. A romantic subplot between Henson and Ali’s characters in particular feels very underdeveloped, which is a shame because the two had good chemistry together.
Also directing the film is Melfi, who is most known for his work on the mediocre St. Vincent. As a director, Melfi’s style can be a bit formulaic at times. The film is constantly trying to play for these important crowd-pleasing moments that it can often times come off as overbearing and hokey. It lessens the impact in comparison to the more genuine aspects of the film.
Hidden Figures may not be as groundbreaking as the trio of pioneers its based on, but its a faithful and inspired retelling of an overlooked slice of history.