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Guest Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

While this is may seem like an insult to some, Hidden Figures is that perfect film you can take the whole family too. Usually the “family” demeanor means non-offensive/basic storytelling, here we have a movie that defies its simple premise and delivers one of the most well-rounded films of the year. Yes, you can take the whole family to this because it is a heartwarming tale showing some progress in America’s history; but make no mistake, you’ll want to take the whole family to see Hidden Figures so we can learn how to make progress in some areas our country is still struggling with today.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women whose work helped NASA’s efforts in the Space Race of the 1960’s. The story bounces effectively between the three ladies and each of their struggles in the white male dominated world that was NASA. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) faces push back when she is repeatedly denied career advancement despite her qualifications. Mary’s (Janelle Monae) skill set demands she be an engineer, but she cannot do so unless she is able to take classes at a 1960’s Virginian segregated school. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is our main focus, as she is given the opportunity with the most influence: calculating (more like inventing) the math that will allow an American to not only circle the earth, but re enter the atmosphere safely.

Yes, the real life story is inspiring in its own right, but that is definitely not a guarantee of a good movie. Too many times these types of films end up being recreation of a Wikipedia page rather than a successful story with interesting characters. Luckily for us, the screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder does a great job taking the real life events and crafting them into a compelling two hour film. Each character not only has their career advancement driving the plot, but we also see how each of these ladies encountered segregation and how their math and engineering skills were just as part of the Civil Rights Movement as the protests were.

The inspiring events and solid screenplay are brought to life by the strong ensemble cast on display here. Though Henson is our lead, the trio of women all feel equally as important, and Spencer and Monae are extremely well cast in their roles. Yes they can bring the sass that would be expected of these women trying to make their way in Virginia in the 1960’s, but they are also able to communicate that these women really were qualified for the positions they sought. The real life Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are worthy of a proper portrayal for their service at NASA, and our actresses here do a fine job bringing them to cinematic life.

One of the best “characters” in the film would have to be the score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch, and I mean it when I say the music is a character in this movie. This is a movie that will be a great example of how original music can work with and enhance a film. On the one hand, the trio of composers incorporate both the expected inspirational piano score along with a little funk that comes with the time period. On the other hand, “Runnin’” is not only a great song in its own right, but it is a song inspired by the screenplay and perfectly utilized in the film. It is the perfect example how an original song can be incorporated in a movie.

Where Hidden Figures surprised is in how it interacts with our world today. You would hope that a film set 50 years ago dealing with civil rights would easily be a thing of the past, but unfortunately that is not the case. Whether it be discussions about prejudice in our society, the struggles women face in the workplace, or even how bathrooms can cause social divisions, Hidden Figures feels timely in way that was not expected. To be clear, Hidden Figures is definitely not a heavy film to experience. The PG-rated story doesn’t shy away from the civil rights aspects of the story, but generally it chooses to focus on the hopeful progress rather than dwell on the harsher realities of the struggle.

Hidden Figures ends up being a great movie, period. We have an inspiring story brought to life by some great actresses and some of the best film music of the year. Again, sometimes of these real life stories get bogged down as they cover every single event that happens over the course of 30 years. Hidden Figures succeeds as it focuses in on specific moments in the Space Race and how these women helped lead the way. The movie ends up being that perfect balance between inspiring, entertaining and educational.

Score: 9/10

If you liked this review, you can read more of my writing over at Tarpley Movie Talk or you can click here to follow on Twitter.

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