It is hard to fault Theodore Melfi for his safe and carefully crafted Hidden Figures. As the writer-director of St. Vincent, he had already proven capable of rendering the sharp edges of a character like Bill Murray’s titular irascibly curmudgeon. Much the same effect takes hold in Hidden Figures, the story, primarily, of three African American women – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – who become beacons of light for women of color.
To focus on the oppressiveness of the daily slights and indignations these women faced would potentially alienate most of the film’s audience. Black folks of a certain generation might appreciate that take, but white folks wouldn’t cotton to the feel-bad reality most people like to believe is a relic of the past.
So Melfi and his co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder, working from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, hone in on the core humanity of these three women, their spunk and decency. That’s in contrast to the utter fecklessness of most of the white folks they encounter on a regular basis.
Since the broad narrative involves the space race of the 1960s, I would posit that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson would be best understood as time travelers. Melfi’s representation of them uses humor and sass to connect with contemporary audiences, eager to dismiss the overt racial hostility the three face. And we watch them sure in our beliefs that, had we been around during those situations, we would have acted swiftly to right the wrongs. And we urge them on as we watch, even though we know the real people the characters are based on have already done the heavy lifting. (In theaters) Grade: B