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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017 12:04 am

Figures fine but lacks bite

Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures.
Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is the sort of sanitized history lesson that sets out to right wrongs by presenting a story infused with good intentions and a sense of righteousness. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, other than the fact that it doesn’t go far enough in portraying the abuse and neglect its three principal characters surely had to endure, what with being them being African-American women working in a professional environment in the South during the 1960s.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film chronicles the lives of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three brilliant women who rose through the ranks of three separate divisions at NASA during the space race. Each had to deal with sexual and racial prejudice, both direct and implied, as they struggled to be recognized as unique individuals who had something to contribute in their given fields. Their tenacity as well as support from their families helps them succeed in the end, despite having more than a few roadblocks in their way.

A standard approach is used in telling their story as the incidents of racism the trio must contend with are rather mild, many of them dealt with in a crowd-pleasing manner which causes the audience to clap at the righteousness displayed and the justice of the moment. As if tackling what happened at the women’s workplace isn’t enough, the film also delves into their private lives, as the widowed Johnson finally finds a man (Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali) worthy enough to be around her children, Jackson gets unexpected help from her husband (Aldis Hodge), and Vaughan perseveres in raising her children.

While the script certainly needs more bite, the work from the three principals has a fiery edge to it that more than compensates for these shortcomings. Henson, as far away from Cookie of “Empire” as possible, gives Johnson a sweet sense of shyness that belies the strength that lies beneath. Once she finally speaks out against the racism she’s had to contend with at the workplace, it is a powerful, long-time-coming moment in which the actress wisely shows a bit of restraint, making it all the more powerful. Spencer is solid as always, playing Vaughan with a quiet sense of resolve and strength made all the more human by the humor the actress brings to the role. Monae has her breakout moment giving a firebrand turn as the indefatigable Jackson, her determination to succeed genuine and moving. Finally, Kevin Costner as division leader Al Harrison gives one of his better performances, a man so focused on his work that he only slowly becomes aware of the racism in his midst.

To be sure, there’s plenty to like in the film and more than enough to make it worth seeing. However, in the end, Hidden Figures is tentative entertainment, one that raises awareness about these women and history’s slight of them. However, in order to pay true tribute to them, a more biting look at the adversity they faced is required.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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