REVIEW: Hidden Figures
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons
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…a beautifully crafted film…
“Yes, they let women do things at NASA.” This is the central theme that drives Hidden Figures, and while it does at times feel a little too much like watching self-congratulatory white dudes patting themselves on the back for how progressive they were in giving women opportunities in the 60s (a kind of “not all men” vibe), it is nonetheless a worthy film.
Hidden Figures is the incredible untold true story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three brilliant African-American female mathematicians working at NASA who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of (recently passed) astronaut and all-American hero, John Glenn (Glen Powell), into orbit.
Everyone knows about the Apollo missions. We can all immediately list the bold male astronauts who took those first giant steps for humankind in space: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Yet, remarkably, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson’s are names not taught in school or even known to most people – even though their daring, smarts, and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to advances that allowed for human space flight.
For all its joys and triumphs, Hidden Figures also takes place at the crossroads of the most defining struggles in American history: the evolving fight for Civil Rights; the battle to win the high-stakes Cold War without risking nuclear war and be the first superpower to establish a human presence outside planet Earth; and the ongoing drive to show how the mind-boggling technological breakthroughs that create the world’s future have nothing to do with gender or background.
Director and co-screenwriter, Theodore Melfi (St Vincent, Winding Roads), is a skilled filmmaker, and he demonstrates a great deal of finesse here, but struggles to fully capture the depth of any of the poignant themes. There are too many issues to keep tabs on, and as a result, he doesn’t succeed in giving any of them the attention that they really need. That said, Melfi’s direction is fast-moving, humour-filled, and inspiring, and while he does gloss over important moments surrounding racism, sexism, religion, technology, politics and so on, he does at least illuminate them enough to inspire a dialogue. And maybe that’s enough.
Again, Hidden Figures is a remarkably important story to tell from an equality point of view, and Melfi, for the most part, does a stellar job. However, it is still the real life story of three African-American women being told through the lense of a white man, who (though he surely did his due diligence for the film) couldn’t possibly understand the struggles that these women endured enough to fully capture them in any real way. And to this end, his inexperience in these matters shows. Sure, you don’t have to be a black woman to direct a film about the struggles of black women, but Melfi doesn’t seem to have connected enough with their plight to really do it justice.
In the end, the film misses the grit of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s reality. Their experiences around segregation and sexism are too neatly resolved and polished, if not totally white washed and self-appreciating. The female leads, for instance, are depicted as highly talented, gifted minds, yet it is the men of the narrative who so graciously “allow” them to move forward. While, sure, this is likely a by-product of wanting to accurately represent cultural attitudes toward gender in the 60s, Melfi has constructed a screenplay that wastes far too much time giving kudos to the male characters for being progressive than he does on the accomplishments of the women themselves.
The film’s heart and authenticity come from the performances of the three leading ladies, particularly Taraji P. Henson’s viciously unstoppable portrayal of trailblazer, Katherine G. Johnson. She is something else here; so courageous and forceful. Likewise, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe bring the perfect blend of humour and tenacity to their real-life characters, ultimately anchoring the film with their confident representations of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
While Hidden Figures does labour to scratch the surface of all the critical touchpoints that it attempts to cover, as well as the reality of the lives of the women that it is based on, no one could argue that it isn’t a beautifully crafted film with a meaningful place in cinematic history.