A preview of Hidden Figures takes place at BFI Southbank on 7 February, followed by a discussion with writer and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, director and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun and director Jenn Nkiru. The event will be hosted by Clare Stewart, BFI Head of Festivals.
Hidden Figures is released in UK cinemas on 17 February
The title of new space-race drama Hidden Figures has a double meaning. It refers to the members of NASA’s backroom staff who are kept out of the limelight and shamefully discriminated against because of their skin colour and sex. But it also alludes to the numbers on pages and blackboards that make space travel possible, as skilled mathematicians work overtime on mind-bending equations.
Early on, amid the award-season hype, it looked as if there might be an unintended third meaning, as this powerful civil rights-era drama appeared to be facing critical and public neglect. But now, following a stint at the top of the US box office and three Oscar nominations, this soulful ensemble piece is getting a deserved slot in the limelight.
Here are five reasons why…
1. It showcases a trio of superb black actors in the lead roles
At the core of Hidden Figures are three strong, clever and immensely likeable central performances from three black American actors, who play friends working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Taraji P. Henson leads the film as Katherine Goble, an ostensibly shy maths genius. Goble becomes a key figure in the first manned US space programme through a combination of technical ability, will power and slowly developing confidence. Having previously won the award for The Help (2011), Octavia Spencer justifiably bagged another best supporting actress Oscar nod for her role as steadfast mathematician supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. She’s the heart of the film and its wisest character. In-demand Janelle Monáe, fresh from her fine work in Moonlight (2016), excels as engineer Mary Jackson. Fans of Monáe’s extraordinary live shows as a musician may be surprised at the relatively restrained and contemplative work here. As an added bonus, Monáe referenced the film in her trenchant speech at the Washington DC Women’s March on 21 January.
2. It might kickstart a revolution
Using sites such as Kickstarter to crowdfund film production has been in vogue in recent years, with Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (2013), Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (both 2014) all benefitting from cinephile philanthropy. Crowdfunding actual screenings of completed films is a new development but one that has enabled many low-income filmgoers in America to see Hidden Figures at the cinema. The BBC reported on this development earlier in January and revealed how community groups and individuals across America have been raising money to block-book screenings for film fans who couldn’t afford to see the film. Spencer even got in on the act and paid for a screening in LA’s Baldwin Hills.
3. Awesome Ali is on form again
Mahershala Ali’s time is finally here. Having wowed audiences with stellar support turns in two of the biggest and best contemporary US TV shows (House of Cards and Luke Cage), Ali was awarded a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role in Moonlight, where he plays a thoughtful crack dealer and mentor of a troubled boy, opposite Monáe. In Hidden Figures he is typically watchable in a small but symbolic role as Colonel Jim Johnson. The soldier has romantic designs on Goble but is unwise to underestimate her.
4. There’s sterling support
Uptight head engineer Paul Stafford (played with po-faced severity by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of Goble, but two support characters played by Hollywood favourites also deserve a mention. Kevin Costner is a reassuring presence as Goble’s stressed boss, Space Task Group director Al Harrison, while Kirsten Dunst is delightfully unpleasant as supervisor Vivian Mitchell. Dunst’s career has been intriguing so far, and one can only hope she gets to play more dislikeable characters – in Hidden Figures, it’s like there’s a bad smell constantly under her nose.
5. It reunites a soundtrack dream-team
With venerable composer Hans Zimmer once again teaming up with Pharrell Williams, it’s no surprise that the music in Hidden Figures is one of its finest facets. When the pair worked together on Despicable Me 2, that film yielded the ubiquitous ‘Happy’, which became the best-selling single of 2014 on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, the duo collaborate on a lush, evocative score while Williams contributes a host of songs. The pick of these is ‘Runnin’, an infectious earworm that’s all pumping brass, staccato piano stabs and swooping harmonies that recalls Ray Charles in his prime. It’ll linger in the memory as long as the film’s feelgood story does.