Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Hidden Figures is a film about specificity, about having no margin of error because you need to be dead on. You need to be right. Set predominantly in 1961, it tells the stories of three African-American women working for the NASA space program. All three are acutely gifted in their roles, yet due to their sex and their race they encounter conflicting attitudes and experiences, contradictions that form the frustrating fundamentals of inequality.
The film is tailor-made for this time of year and awards season. Director Theodore Melfi ensures his film is bright and clean, touched with that instantly recognisable saccharine glow. Call it the Academy sheen. The writing is buoyant, dusted with too-perfect moments of lightly comic irony. It’s the kind of film that allows its main characters to enjoy a jovial dance together only to contrast such a moment with a suitably sombre (but deliberately brief) reminder of political tensions happening just outside the door. And the hallmarks keep coming. It tells an underdog story that is also an intrinsically American story. It’s a period piece. It’s PG rated. And Kevin Costner is in it. Kevin Costner. His name is virtually how you spell prestige (that’s a stretch, all right). In every element this is a film honed in its intention. There is no margin of error here.
These factors play for and against it. As a puff-piece on those unjustly taken for granted in one of the USA’s great 20th century legacies, it shines. But it is a puff-piece. It’s unashamedly light entertainment, and on those terms it skips jauntily, batting it’s eyes at the Academy judges so recently reprimanded for their narrow field of vision. And while Melfi’s control of the film is secure he is greatly indebted to his cast. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are all terrific as the central trio.
Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson whose work gets her promoted into a room of stiff-collared white men working the numbers. Under the disapproving glare of Jim Parsons’ Stafford, she remains fired up thanks to the motivational speechifying of Costner’s Al Harrison who recognises her gift for mathematics. Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, working a supervisor’s role in the computer room under the watchful eye of Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell… but without the corresponding pay grade or accompanying respect. Monáe rounds out the trio as Mary Jackson, a would-be engineer on the project. Monáe feels relatively under-served in terms of screen time, but makes conspicuous use of that which she is given. Between them they infuse Hidden Figures with enough get-up-n-go for three pictures.
The worthiness of Hidden Figures is without argument. If anything it’s appearance begs the question; why hasn’t this story been told on such a canvas before? Regardless, here it is now, and Melfi has ensured it’s softened for mass consumption. This is about as prettified a picture of triumph against adversity as you’ll see all year.
Allison Schroeder’s meticulously judged screenplay works hard to keep the point of civil rights on the table without turning the film into an all-out civics lesson or endangering that highly valued sense of tea-time cosiness. Protests and the overarching politics are kept to the fringes of the screen or trapped within televisions. And perhaps wisely. Melfi’s film isn’t about the whole, but the specifics. We’re inside NASA, not considering a vantage of the US in its entirety. And yet within the walls of NASA, Melfi presents us a microcosm of the larger issue; but it is, one feels, a best-case scenario. Watching the film without greater context one might assume the civil rights movement and the epidemic of racism in America was resolved by 1965.
With that in mind, one gets the feeling that this also a tastefully safe picture, in which the boldest implications of discrimination on its characters is exampled by the positioning of the NASA bathrooms. A legitimate point, but something of a soft target? The scene in which Katherine blows her stack over this is the punchiest of the first hour and the most obviously ‘showy’ up until that point, Costner’s response is righteous and progressive, but that these moments spike in the viewer’s consciousness belays the modesty of the shrewd movie surrounding them. One also wonders if this was the grossest injustice encountered by these women as they tried to stand beside their white male counterparts.
So progression for the Academy takes place in a succession of baby steps. Hidden Figures can feel keenly tied into this sensibility, eager for recognition within the parameters of someone else’s mandate. It’s a film that seems hesitant to reveal a more full-throated voice, which somewhat goes against the message at its core.
Perhaps I’m asking a lot. Hidden Figures has fire enough for a film giving the appearance of playing by the rules, placating those it needs to in order get it’s foot in the door (and so it has). Melfi uses source music both fitting to and incongruous with the time period just as he interjects Hans Zimmer’s prescription strings to lead the audience where he wants them. It is all a means to an end. In this instance, it’s easy to allow one’s self to be played in such a manner.
Because while I can back and forth over the coffee-table smoothness of the presentation, the stories of Mary Jackson, Katherine G Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan are pleasures to witness. Perhaps the question isn’t where have these films been but, now that they’re here, why aren’t there more of them? Watching Johnson win over the respect of her peers is immensely satisfying, as are the victories won by Jackson and Vaughan. Hidden Figures feels like it’s arrived on the cusp of an overdue populist sea change, a fine example of how the Oscars might not be quite so white anymore. Perhaps appearances are deceiving. Maybe this movie is a wolf in sheep’s clothing after all. Play the system. Work the numbers. Push the boundaries. Bit by bit. It’s all about the specificity.