Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.
Based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who struggled against racism and sexism while helping NASA in the Space Race. The movie focuses primarily on Katherine Johnson, a mathematics genius tasked with checking the calculations of the NASA engineers working on getting an American astronaut into orbit around the Earth. Katherine works with Dorothy Vaughan, the de facto supervisor of the segregated West Area division of the Langley Research Center. Vaughan isn’t allowed the title of supervisor simply because of the color of her skin, a fact that frustrates her greatly. Mary Jackson works alongside Vaughn and Johnson. She dreams of moving up the engineering ranks at NASA, but learns this will be nearly impossible, because it requires course work from a college that doesn’t admit African Americans (and because she’s a woman and women aren’t engineers). The women are known as computers, the title given to mathematicians who checked the calculations of space flight before the machines with the same name existed.
The most disappointing quality of Hidden Figures from a biopic standpoint is that it hits, right on cue, every note you would expect a biopic to hit. There are virtually no surprises to be had here. These women will begin the movie facing adversity, they will struggle mightily to overcome that adversity, and by the end they will triumph to varying degrees. The biopic staple, the inspirational montage, makes more than one appearance. These narrative shortcuts, which show the characters working towards their goals while inspiring music plays in the background, speak to the lack of inspired writing by screenwriters Theodore Melfi, who also directed, and Allison Schroeder. Melfi’s direction offers no distinct visual flair. Unfortunately, it’s a movie that’s as visually boring as its storytelling.
From a race perspective, Hidden Figures isn’t much more interesting. Instead of a nuanced approach to the evils of segregation and ignorant prejudice, the movie opts for simplistic dynamics. The complex mechanisms of racism built up by over 200 years of oppression are easily mitigated by a few melodramatic speeches, after which the white characters have sudden realizations that African Americans are people, too, and they deserve equal and fair treatment. Would that it were so easy to change hearts and minds.
The most egregious example comes midway through the film. The director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison, requests an additional computer to help check the engineers’ calculations, and Katherine gets the assignment. As a result, she moves from the West Campus to the all-white East Campus. Katherine discovers fast that she faces more hurdles than a demanding boss and constantly changing and classified data. She also has to make a cross-campus trek every time she needs to use the bathroom, as the ones in her new building are for whites only. On her second day, she is greeted by her own coffee pot, next to the communal one, which has been labeled “colored” and doesn’t have any coffee in it. All this boils over one day when Harrison castigates her in front of the entire team over why she is away from her desk so often. Soaking wet from running a mile across campus and back in the rain, Katherine lets Harrison and the rest of the group know exactly why it takes her over thirty minutes to relieve herself.
The next shot shows Harrison smashing the “colored” sign installed over the bathroom with a baseball bat. It’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment that was totally fabricated for the movie, and appears nowhere in the book. Changing the facts in a movie based on real life is commonplace, and not necessarily always wrong. Intent and effect must be taken into account. This particular fudging of the facts turns a complicated subject into a simplistic, easy feel good moment. The assertion that one impassioned speech from a subordinate could make a person completely rethink their entire belief system is condescending and lazy, no matter the good intentions.
There are some bright spots in Hidden Figures. The performances of the leads are quite enjoyable. Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson is a bit mannered – she relies too heavily on the acting tick of constantly adjusting her glasses – but she is masterful at eliciting empathy for her character’s situation. Octavia Spencer shines as Dorothy Vaughan, a woman who fought for the recognition she deserved. Singer Janelle Monáe follows up her naturalistic work in the exceptional Moonlight with another fine performance here as Mary Jackson.
In addition to the performances, there are also a few welcome instances where the screenplay does achieve subtlety. Johnson is wooed by a suitor named Jim throughout the film, played by the always great Mahershala Ali. Even Jim is not immune from prejudiced thinking, even though he himself is part of an oppressed group. His surprise that a woman would be allowed to participate in any meaningful work at NASA is a view Katherine is happy to correct.
History has typically been written by those with the most power. Thankfully, those who were relegated to the shadows are finally getting their day in the sun, even if the process is slow in happening. It is vital that stories like the ones of these three women are told. We can’t begin to appreciate the rich tapestry of the past until all that helped weave it are included. It’s just disappointing when the filmmakers fail their subjects, and don’t give them the rich tribute they deserve.
Why it got 2 stars:
- Hidden Figures is a movie that focuses on a fascinating story, but it completely botches the execution.
- It's a crowd-pleaser for sure, but if you crave storytelling with more depth, this isn't the movie for you.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I said Hidden Figures has all the problems of The Help. Upon reflection, that isn't entirely true or fair. That movie focused more on the white women, and how the African American women served as devices to help those white women discover why racism is wrong. Besides the admittedly simplistic scene I mentioned about the bathroom sign, this isn't the case. The black characters in Hidden Figures really are the center of the story, and that should be acknowledged and praised.
- Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the baseball bat wielding force for racial justice. Costner is a bore here, giving the impression that he is totally phoning in his performance.