When it comes to racial oppression in a cinematic context, most filmmakers lean on visceral depictions. Which makes sense: In movies like 12 Years a Slave and Birth of a Nation, brutal physical abuse gets the message across as well as anything could.
But when you bring your story into the post-slavery era, especially into what we consider the 'modern' day, it's not as straightforward. There are still, unfortunately, plenty of options: the KKK burning crosses, vicious beatings from police, ordinary life disrupted by fear-fueled shootings.
But today's racism occurs in so many quiet, searing ways as well; a simple word or gesture can crush someone's heart or soul, but those events aren't typically big and bombastic enough for the big screen. What Hidden Figures does better than any movie in recent memory is capture those smaller moments and pile them up, both to reinforce the weight of oppression and enhance the cheers and tears when the oppressed rise up anyway.
Our leads are three black female colleagues at 1960s NASA who are working to advance the space program while struggling to carve a place for themselves in a white-centric government agency. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who is ignored because of her race; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a supervisor in duty but not in name; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an aspiring engineer who can't attend the necessary classes because they're taught at a segregated school.
Their stories branch out and intertwine when needed, largely for the occasional invigorating get-together. Otherwise, it's them versus the world, and the script offers ample opportunities for white people to place roadblocks in their way. Monáe's Jackson is the youngest and most outspoken overall, while Spencer's Vaughn has specific troubles with supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), but it's Henson's Goble who suffers the most. She's incredibly smart and also very quiet, which makes the boiling over of her frustrations that much more powerful.
Katherine finds herself working with Al Harrison (Kevin Costner)—director of the Space Task Group that is trying to put an astronaut into orbit—while Dorothy teaches herself programming to keep up with the arrival of a computer and Mary pursues the legal right to educate herself. But Goble's arrival in a high-stress environment means new versions of the same old challenges, including a "coloreds only" coffee dispenser and the nearest black-friendly bathroom being several miles away. Henson, in a brilliantly mild-mannered way, plays these slights as survivable, until they pile up and—most importantly—limit how well she can do her job. For a proud, intelligent woman, that's the last straw, and the audience feels it with a vengeance.
Writer-director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder keep each of the three women wonderfully distinct, but they owe a debt of gratitude to the casting director for bringing in Henson, Spencer, and Monae. More than anything, what comes across is how basic their desires are. They're all ambitious women, especially for their era, but ultimately all they ask for is the same opportunities as their peers. Melfi and his actresses all seem to grasp that and therefore resort to little melodrama; there's plenty of real drama to mine instead.
When a boss's eyes are finally opened to the segregated coffee and bathrooms. When a white supervisor insists that she means well, only to be pleasantly and savagely rebuked by her black cohort. When a judge allows for admission to segregated classes thanks to a whole lot of sweet talking in regards to his legacy. We don't know that they all happened just this way, but they're very much actions of the movie's time and place. And they paint the larger picture of racism—and three women who weren't buried by its limitations—with a certainty that other movies lack.
We're far from living in a post-racial society, as current events reiterate on a daily basis. But, almost 60 years removed from times like these, it's very clear who was on the side of good and who was on the side of evil. Hidden Figures doesn't break new ground in its structure or presentation, nor is it overly preachy. But the work of its three leads, along with the power of their story as both debilitating and uplifting, make Melfi's second feature something special.