Hidden Figures Favors Drama Over Impact
Overview: Three black women employed by NASA in the early 1960s solve mathematical equations essential to the success of the space program’s manned missions. 20thCentury Fox; 2016; Rated PG; 127 minutes.
Women in History: In the early 1960s, a team of black women worked for NASA as mathematicians and engineers to help the U.S. beat the Soviets in the race to space – and none of us knew about them. Hidden Figures shines the spotlight on three real-life women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a brilliant mathematician who graduated high school at 14, college at 18, and taught math before becoming the most skilled mathematician in analytic geometry at NASA; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the supervisor (without the pay and title) of all the black female “computers” – called such because that’s what they did, compute their white male engineers’ work by hand; and Mary Jackson (the scene-stealing Janelle Monáe) who makes it her mission to become the first black female engineer at NASA, despite the Jim Crow laws keeping her from the required degree. It’s impossible to watch this film and not ask, “How did we not know about these women?” and wonder what other important figures were casually omitted from our history books.
Racism, PG-Style: There’s a careful balance to strike when making a film about real people, one of whom is still living, turning 99 years old this year. It is no easy task to honor the legacies of these women while accurately recounting true events and making it something audiences want to see, and Hidden Figures consistently errs on the side of caution. Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s screenplay (which was adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel by the same name) does its best to give us a Civil Rights Movement Light: a watered-down, feel-good, Hollywood-ified version of the struggles these women had to overcome to break through their double-paned glass ceilings. Characters make odd asides, little quips about dates and their specific significance in history, and the movie tells rather than shows and tells again just in case you didn’t hear the first time. But, to attract the largest audience to a story more than deserving of attention, I imagine it would only make sense to make a movie about racism and sexism a bit more (for lack of a better word) palatable, especially for younger audiences who, I’ll argue, need to know about these women more than they need a capital G-Great movie. But for these captivating, brilliant, real-life pioneers, I wished for more from this film.
The Good, the Bad, and the Hokey: Though undeniably corny and often too heavy-handed, Hidden Figures executes some of the more subtle aspects of racism rather flawlessly. When Katherine is recruited to Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) team, she’s met with the assumption that she’s there to clean the office. Rather than stage grand objections, her white, male coworkers mostly keep their heads down; she’s not welcome but no one takes aim initially, and this restraint proves to be one of the more effective choices in building the necessary tension to drive the narrative. Two of the grander movie moments: Katherine berating her boss in front of everyone over the quarter mile walk to the “colored women’s” bathrooms and his subsequent response in taking a crow bar to the bathroom sign, felt undeserved, out of character, and required too great a suspension of disbelief. So much of the tension that was carefully crafted was sold for a halfway decent clip for a theatrical trailer. Though it was what audiences expected, and I imagine wanted, a more skilled director and more seasoned writers would have shown restraint, toning down these scenes for a more powerful result. Though, in the most rightfully earned and brilliantly underplayed scene in the film, Spencer skillfully levels her boss, Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), in one sentence. Had Hidden Figures stuck with that model, it would have propelled itself into a different category.
The film takes liberties with the history, interweaving Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s stories and compressing the timeline to allow for a cohesive storyline. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe’s chemistry is undeniable and their friendships seem plausible; though each has her moment to shine, Monáe, particularly in the scene where she pleas to the judge’s ego, gives a standout performance among a cast of veteran actors. Costner’s restrain in a role that could have easily been flat is impressive and key to the film succeeding where it does. Even the minor characters, the forever flawless Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson and the charismatic Glen Powell as John Glenn provided life to an otherwise lackluster script. With a cast like this, it’s hard not to long for the gritty drama that could have been.
Overall: If you’re hoping for a feel-good, family-friendly movie, Hidden Figures will be a pleasant surprise. If your expectations are set any higher than your history teacher’s favorite film to leave for the substitute teacher, you may be disappointed.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox