Best Picture-nominee Hidden Figures turns the spotlight toward three black women who, in the 1960s, fought against the segregationist mentality of white America for fair treatment in their jobs at NASA during the Space Race. Lee and our brand new critic Aisling review.
Accessibility is a constant juggle for cinema, for what good is a good message for the masses if the masses have no interest? Historical movies get their built-in draw just reflecting life, but what’s going to make the audience stay seated and awake? It’s not going to be the gloom and misery of the mistreated; pop music, bright visuals, snappy tit-for-tat dialogue and some easy-to-follow storytelling – that’ll get ‘em.
So we’re back to the Critical Fiction with Hidden Figures, that catch-all classification of movies that simplify their hard message for mass appeal, and this time we have a true contender for success. While the message of segregation and inequality for the black people, here championed by three black women representing varying degrees of social reform (workplace, society and education; though the three overlap quite regularly), is, as always, incredibly vital to reiterate and continue to change, here the issue is almost made palatable by its sheer cartoon-like accessibility. Reducing the issue to such binary as good and bad (which, essentially, it is) makes the solutions seem that much simpler: just stop doing it. These working people are abused and hassled at every turn, and it’s a miracle the movie can show us this and overlay it with poppy Pharrell Williams music, like some Gospel-leaning Benny Hill Theme.
We’ll chuckle or seethe; either way the film pulls us in, then sucker punches us time after time with its hard message, before getting back to some good old fashioned math-porn that keeps the camera’s rolling and the audience marvelling. Aside from the occasional crash into moral reality, the movie is, understandably, conventional; to the point however where we don’t really bond with our characters at all. While we do understand their pains and wish them better, the snapshots of their day-to-day lives don’t satisfy as character building, and that lack of insight will rob these great women of new role model appeal for many kids watching, trying to see a little of themselves in the larger-than-life NASA employees.
Katherine Johnson gets a twee romance and some stock footage kids to attend to, but it seldom if ever informs the actual story being told more than had we been told it in a single sentence. Dorothy Vaughn gets plenty of opportunity to rib the prejudiced white people into shape, and it works, but beyond that she is just her job and little else. And poor Mary Jackson, who starred in this movie like Martin Freeman starred in Love, Actually; a witty persona, a little bit of a gossip, a small but significant civil rights win that almost happens entirely off-screen and that’s it; it’s just a little disappointing.
The main drama is well paced and involving though, with a constant back-and-forth between Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine and Jim Parsons’ Paul; racially-fuelled office politics with just a little hint of Good Will Hunting, it’s occasionally gripping stuff. It’s no eye-opener, sure, but Katherine’s refusal to take her job lying down and the occasional breaking point keep the message clear, and injustice in the workplace is universal enough to land with almost any adult with a modicum of self-awareness.
It’s a little saturated and glossy, but it does the job, and that’s all the audience will ask of it. For some, it’s droll enough to be inoffensive, though it occasionally teeters into eye-rolling mundanity. For most, it’s a perfectly digestible tale, rooted in some great moral messaging that likely won’t rock too many boats, but at least manages to keep everything presentable and above board. That’s perfectly fine.
[Lee’s review originally posted 24/02/2017]
As Oscar contenders go, Hidden Figures seemed one guaranteed for Best Picture glory. On paper, it certainly has all the right ingredients; it is a glowing tribute to feminism just as much as it is a tale of racial empowerment. Based on a true story, Hidden Figures celebrates three previously unsung heroes whose work at NASA helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. The fact that these unsung heroes were both female and black in an incredibly racist and sexist era only serves to make the story all the more incredible.
Despite being embedded in one of the proudest moments in American history and touching upon a myriad of important, relevant issues, one cannot help but feel disappointed then that Hidden Figures seems to have been beaten into Oscar-Winner submission. Its ground-breaking, barrier-defying source material doesn’t seem as hard-hitting when smeared with a thick coat of Hollywood gloss.
Focusing on Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three brilliant and status-quo defying NASA employees, the film tackles the racial relations of the United States during the post-war period, though never veers far from its inoffensive, politically correct tone. Certainly, much of the film’s appeal lies with its three leads. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae (who also stars in Best-Picture Winner Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer are hugely likeable. Perhaps the problem with Hidden Figures is that they are just that – likeable, instead of the trail-blazers they were. Henson in particular seems subdued as the widowed human-computer Katherine.
It feels at times that instead of relying on their incredible story, Melfi and Schroeder preferred to rely on comfortable, heavy-handed drama designed to lead the audiences’ reaction, with numerous scenes depicting the white staff’s awakening to the injustices the three ladies face, as well as at least one-too-many shots of Katherine dashing the mile to the ‘Coloured’ bathroom. Meanwhile, a scene where Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison demolishes the ‘Coloureds Only’ sign from the toilets feels little more than a Hollywood-Blockbuster punch in the face. One cannot help but feel that had Melfi stayed true to the real Katherine Jackson (who used whatever bathroom she wanted), Hidden Figures would have had a little more bite. Dunst, Costner and Parsons also provide strong turns as NASA’s white ‘superiors’, even if it seems that Parsons will find it difficult to break free of his Big Bang Theory character.
Hidden Figures could have been a remarkable film; instead, it is merely about something remarkable. Nevertheless, it is a familiar, uplifting and emotional film, depicting the (albeit subdued) triumph of an underdog that audiences have always loved. Although at times heavy-handed, its heart is in the right place.