Janelle Monáe is going to be a megastar.
That might not be the first thing you’d expect to take away from Hidden Figures, director Theodore Melfi’s Cold War space race period piece starring Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, but it rings out clear as a bell by the time the credits roll. Still new to the acting game, the singer/songwriter first hit the screen earlier this year with an eye-catching role in the universally praised Moonlight before appearing here in another awards contender, creating a hell of a two-part resume to launch her film career (and yes, she was a voice in Rio 2, but we all have to start somewhere). The energy, charisma and effusive charm she has shown on stage for years proves to be eminently transferable to the silver screen, and perhaps what’s scariest about it all is how utterly effortless it seems to be for her. And to make that sort of impression while sharing the bill with venerated veterans like Henson and Spencer is no small feat indeed.
Despite the impression that she makes, Monáe is not the lead of Hidden Figures; that privilege falls to Henson, who plays Katherine Johnson, a math whiz hired by NASA in the early 60’s to crunch numbers as the US tries to escalate their role in the space race in a post-Sputnik world. Originally relegated to a low level role, her assertion and excellence with math catches the eye of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who brings her into the inner circle working on trajectories for the solo orbit mission of John Glenn (Glen Powell, who delighted in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! earlier this year). Yet despite her importance to the project, she still faces obstacles at every turn, whether it’s the scorn of Harrison’s second in command (Jim Parsons) or the experience of having to run across the campus to a different building to find the closed bathroom for colored people, even if it takes 40 minutes out of her day just to relieve herself. But such trials won’t bring her down.
Monáe and Spencer face their own obstacles throughout the film, with Mary Jackson (Monáe), a young and passionate engineer-to-be, blocked from becoming a full member of the team working on Glenn’s space pod due to a technicality and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) fighting against institutional racism as one of the only female black supervisors in the history of the program. They may not be the people highlighted as key factors in the space race (the film is called Hidden Figures for a reason, after all), but their dedication to the cause in the face of such extreme segregation and bigotry in 1960’s Virginia (this is the second film about race relations in 60’s Virginia following Jeff Nichols’ Loving) shows a resolve few can match. They aren’t quite revolutionaries (though Monáe’s Mary Jackson shows some fire when she takes her fight to the court system), choosing to keep their heads down and have their actions speak louder than words, but they don’t wilt at a challenge.
Hidden Figures has all the markings to fall squarely into the “Inspiring True Story” genre that can so often feel like it’s meticulously designed for awards consideration. And with its release date furthering such expectations (Christmas day qualifying run, early January wide release, the same sort of strategy used by Selma and The Revenant and countless other awards hawks), there has to be some amount of worry that this could be more on the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close end of the spectrum than, say, Argo or Captain Phillips. And indeed, a film like this has to walk a perilous tightrope, with saccharine treacle on one side of the divide and cynical manipulation on the other. One false step and it all comes tumbling down. Luckily, Melfi (working on a script co-credited with Allison Schroeder from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) has realized that the most important aspect of the film is the casting of his three leads, and he couldn’t possibly have done better. Thoughts on Monáe’s performance should be clear by now, but it really cannot be understated how much of a presence and an injection of youthful energy she is on screen. Spencer is reliably cast as the elder stateswoman of the group, and while she probably has the least to do of the three, she makes the most of her work. Henson has to do the majority of the heavy lifting, involved in the film’s romantic subplot, a courtship with the dashing Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, once again sharing the screen with Monáe after playing her partner in Moonlight), in addition to her work as the film’s de facto lead. We see the majority of the three women’s trials through her eyes, whether it’s the late nights that keep her from her children or the complete lack of recognition that comes from being a vital cog in the wheel that lifts Glenn above the atmosphere.
But we feel the triumph through her as well, and it’s here that Hidden Figures truly gets to the other side of the tightrope with barely a stumble. It is a rousing film, its climax marked by tense faces waiting for Glenn to radio in that he’s safe while the score (composed by its own trio, Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer) builds to its crescendo. Of course, we know that Glenn will succeed, but the way Melfi plays the event through the prism of these three women and their experiences is movie magic at its best. Each had a key role to play, even if the world has forgotten their names. Hidden Figures reminds us of their names, of the role the little guy plays in a history that only remembers the big ones. It would be easy to discount this film as Oscar bait based on its trailer or its synopsis, but to do so would be to ignore three actresses at the top of their game showing us true inspiration at the cinema. This is not one to miss.