The ongoing struggle for cinematic representation of people of color continues, even as Hollywood is ever quick to remind us of how progressive it is. Take, for example, Hidden Figures, which tells the true story of three African-American women who broke new ground at NASA by being the absolute best at their jobs and refusing to settle for less than they deserved. I am always happy to see movies that recount the successes of people of color, rather than ones that wallow pointlessly in the misery of the most undeserved in that community. It is notable, however, that in order for a movie to get made about people of color, the individuals at the center cannot simply be good at their jobs; they have to be preternaturally talented, high-end geniuses. There is no middle-ground between grinding poverty and achieving stratospheric success for people of color at the movies; only white people are afforded the opportunity to be merely average.
At least Hidden Figures manages to be a really, really good movie about its subject. It focuses on Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar-nominated Octavia Spencer), all of whom are employed as computers at NASA to assist in the effort to get the first man into space during the 1960s. They are among the smartest people in the country, as we are reminded by the director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), but as black women, their brilliance is undermined by prejudice. Each of the three has greater ambitions than they are afforded, the struggle for which is dramatized in the film.
One of the strengths of Hidden Figures is its ensemble. The screenplay, credited to Allison Schroeder and the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, gives them its due without overextending the run-time or slowing the story’s fleet pace. The actors are uniformly excellent in their roles, a quality that is perhaps bolstered by the fact that none of them is being asked to stretch much outside of their comfort zone. Henson is the exception, tamping down her instinct to overact that she has developed on Empire, instead favoring an internal approach to showing Katherine’s stifled frustration brought about by a lifetime of being underestimated. Spencer may be getting the most awards recognition for her wryly appealing performance, but Henson has the harder job by far.
Still rather new to the job, Melfi proves to be an effective if unremarkable director of optimistic, mainstream cinema, just as he was with his 2014 debut, St. Vincent. Despite the crafty entendre of the film’s title, his telling is ironically uncomplicated and streamlined, skimming the surface of the indignant rage its main characters feel at their constant, unjust treatment. These three women had to claw their way into recognition, a nigh-impossible task whose difficulty is paid lip service but is ultimately papered over to facilitate the narrative, supported by Hans Zimmer’s sweeping score and Pharrell Williams’s sunny songwriting. A weightier, better version of this story could have been told by a director like Dee Rees or Ava DuVernay, although it may not have gone down as smoothly as Melfi’s.
The characters’ rise to greatness required superhuman qualities, which Hidden Figures portrays through Katherine, Mary and Dorothy. After all, as black women, they have to work four times harder than their white, male coworkers to attain respectability. Hidden Figures tells a pleasant, inspiring story that nevertheless feels incomplete because it fails to capture the internal lives of its characters, amazing as their external ones may have been.
Drama | Twentieth Century Fox