Posts Tagged ‘Hidden Figures’

The_official_poster_for_the_film_Hidden_Figures,_2016Hidden Figures (2016)

Starring- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

Director- Theodore Melfi

PG- thematic elements and some language


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The story of three black women whose efforts were critical to John Glenn’s successful orbit of Earth during the Space Race.

Exactly what I expected it to be, but in a good way. There’s value in simple, uplifting, unchallenging stories of human triumph. Hidden Figures just looked like a nice movie, and it is indeed very nice — very sweet, charming and lightweight. Not great, not particularly memorable, certainly not the confrontational civil rights film this generation needs, but even so, perhaps the spot of hope it needs.

The secondary nature of the racism and sexism touched upon here actually gives Hidden Figures a little room to breathe, to be something other than the stereotypical social issues Oscar drama that repurposes historical oppression for entertaining sentimentality and reassurance that all of this is totally over and we don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s okay that the movie isn’t all that in-your-face because it isn’t really about those things.

It truly is just an honorific for these three women, a celebration of who they were and what they accomplished, an attempt to take these people who were crucial to a major chapter of American history and bring them out of the shadows. Of course it acknowledges the facts of the culture and society they lived in; it has to. But it doesn’t define them by those things — these women are remarkable not because they experienced bigotry, and they’re aren’t even remarkable because they thrived in spite of it; they’re remarkable because they just are. They were brilliant, they put in the work, they fought for what they believed in, they stayed the course, and they made material contributions to humanity’s future without expectation of reward. The movie is about them, and that’s why it succeeds — it gets to the core of who they were and why they ought to be national heroes and doesn’t distract itself. It portrays them as something more than victims awaiting rescue at the hands of compassionate and righteous white people. It isn’t fixated on the novelty of “look — a black person who succeeded, or a woman who succeeded!” It only cares about these characters as people, and despite its saccharine nature, there’s something admirable about that. The film’s joy is infectious, the sense it carries that the filmmakers discovered this neat little story buried beneath the wide sweep of history and just wanted to share it with the world. It’s unpretentious in the best possible way.

Its greatest successes are in its characters and cast — fitting, given that they’re the point of this exercise. Movies like this tend to be a little austere and thus to lose their humanity amidst their need to say something Very Serious, so I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed and connected with these characters. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble Johnson as the no-joke genius of the group, a quietly brilliant woman who tends to avoid confrontation and not rock the board, who forgoes much of what she wants in life because she lacks the assertiveness to make it happen. She acts as the film’s emotional anchor — her calm is our calm, and when she gets excited, we know it’s serious.

Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer does her usual thing, which I could watch all day. In her hands, Dorothy Vaughn is the member of the trio you don’t mess with, the one who commits to whatever she has to do to survive and thrive, who works and studies so hard that she’ll secretly take over the entire operation before you even realize it’s happened. She’s the one who puts in the time and takes away any excuse her superiors might have for favoring others over her. She also knows how to deal wisely with the various power structures in her path; she knows when to keep her head down and when to declare that the buck stops here.

It’s Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, who makes the biggest impression. Mary is the one who makes sure Katherine and Dorothy are still enjoying life a little on the side. She’s sharp-witted and quick with a sarcastic remark; she isn’t shy and is impossible to embarrass. She’s also a fighter, more reckless than Dorothy, but someone needs to be. It isn’t a matter of picking battles; where injustice exists, she’ll arm up and charge into battle. When she wants something, she won’t stop until she has it. Monae ultimately steals just about every scene she’s in; she’s the funniest and most charismatic character by far, and a major high point of the film as a whole.

(And, of course, there’s plenty of solid work from the able supporting cast — whether that’s Kevin Costner’s ability to take charge of a room, Jim Parsons transitioning decently into more serious work, and Mahershala Ali continuing his need to give his agent a big, big raise.)

The script itself is in need of a bit more work. In functioning primarily as a list of its characters’ accomplishments, it occasionally starts to feel more like a series of incidents than a story. It also contends somewhat awkwardly with its biggest inherent challenge — people don’t understand math, so a story centered on data and equations has its work cut out for it setting the stakes and making sure viewers feel the progression of events. Mostly, Hidden Figures ignores the math, so audiences’ understanding of what’s going on is mainly restricted to “it’s very important, just trust us.” Fortunately, its focus is almost entirely on its characters, and its big, sappy heart is tough to resist.

It’s all a bit fluffy, but there’s a place for undemanding, feel-good historical dramas in the current climate. There probably isn’t a future classic anywhere in here, but it’s a great time in the present, certainly must-see family viewing, especially for those with little girls. All it is, in the end, is a story I’m glad I know now. That’s more than sufficient.