Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons
Summary: Three black women lead a team of mathematicians in the 1960s making significant contributions to the space program and contributing to the success of groundbreaking space missions.
How has this story not been told before? and if it has, how has it not gotten more attention? Hidden Figures tells a really interesting story about a pocket of NASA history that I had no idea existed. This is the kind of fun fact that sends me on a Wikipedia spiral where I start by searching for the story of the black mathematicians at NASA and three hours later wind up reading something about Jeffrey Dahmer.
This story is really cool. But this movie is really not.
The most redeeming qualities of Hidden Figures were the performances. Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson have great chemistry on screen. All three of their characters work in different departments at NASA so it was a nice opportunity to highlight the different kinds of work that these women did. Octavia Spencer was good, she brings life to a character even if there’s not much life written into that character. She’s doing great work in this movie but the part she was playing was fairly two dimensional.
I was blown away by Taraji P. Henson playing the main character (Katherine Johnson). I don’t watch Empire because I have taste and self-respect, so this was the first time I’ve really seen her on screen and she is excellent. I’m very disappointed to see that she’s not up for Best Actress. She plays Katherine as a strong, brilliant woman whose desire to participate in this space program and make contributions to NASA battles against her distain for the discrimination she’s shown. Taraji P. Henson gave this character quirks and dimension – she’s a brilliant mathematician and that comes with a nice twinge of nerdiness. There’s a moment in the first half of the film when Katherine finally expresses her outrage about having to use a bathroom that’s in a different building and not being able to share a coffee pot with her co-workers. It was intended to be this really powerful moment and Taraji P. Henson poured everything she had into making it that way, but the entire scene was undercut by the poor writing and pacing of this film. It felt like the film hadn’t earned that moment yet, and this incredible performance is kind of lost.
My biggest qualm with Hidden Figures might be the writing. The film sort of asks you to root for two separate story lines. We’re interested in the personal successes of these three women and want to celebrate their achievements in spite of a system designed to marginalize them. We’re also supposed to be interested in the successful launch of John Glenn into space to orbit the earth and to beat the Russians in the space race. We know how the John Glenn mission turns out, he successfully orbits the earth. Many films have mastered the art of writing an exhilarating climax even when the audience already knows what happens (see: Argo), but this did not do that.
Hidden Figures isn’t a garbage film by any means, it just feels like a Hallmark movie. It’s devoid of the gritty reality of segregation in the 1960s it felt plastic and safe. It seemed like it almost went out of its way not to make their white audiences feel uncomfortable. The real-life Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson deserve better than this. They deserve a film that is true to their experiences. If we saw the reality of their experiences as black women in a white man’s world, their triumphs would be enough to carry the climax of the film; John Glenn and his successful mission would be the sub-plot, not the main event. I would really like to see what Ava Duvernay or Barry Jenkins could have done with this film. This is a remarkable story that has never hit the mainstream and I feel like it was owed a better film.
However, like I said, this is a remarkable story. By making this film a bit more safe and family-friendly does that guarantee that a wider audience sees this film? If audiences know that they will be protected from feeling too uncomfortable or guilty are they more likely to seek out Hidden Figures? An indie approach like Moonlight might have been too polarizing. It may have brought art and realism to the story but guaranteed a far narrower audience. We need more women of all races and backgrounds working in the sciences, aspiring to fill roles that have only ever been occupied by white men. If this telling of Hidden Figures emboldens some young women in the pursuit of their careers, perhaps this sanitized version of their story is ok? I don’t know the answer to that.
Final Verdict: C
I wanted so much more from Hidden Figures. It’s not a waste of 2 hours, it’s still an OK film, but I couldn’t help but see how this would have been a much more powerful film if it had been grittier. Taraji P. Henson would probably be up for Best Actress if her character had been given more to work with and Octavia Spencer would have been able to really give the performance we know she’s capable of, earning her place in that Best Supporting Actress category.
Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer
Best Adapted Screenplay
How on EARTH is this up for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay when Nocturnal Animals is not? That is baffling. I’m also a little confused about Octavia Spencer being nominated as Best Supporting Actress. Taraji P. Henson should be up for Best Actress, but I’m not as familiar with the other performances in that category so I don’t know who I would eliminate to include her. I’m not predicting any wins for Hidden Figures, and if it won in any of those categories I will absolutely throw a fit. It would be almost as bad as the 2003 debocle when Daniel Day Lewis didn’t win Best Actor for Gangs of New York (a day that will live in infamy…)