Hidden Figures is a perfectly acceptable film about a subject that makes all but the most hardened Klansmen feel all mushy inside: black women played an important part of putting men into space, and they faced discrimination, indignity, and were relegated into footnotes in history. It is well acted and has the requisite big beats–such as when Kevin Costner tears down a “Colored Women’s Bathroom” sign and Mahershala Ali proposes to Taraji P. Henson in front of her whole family.
But what Hidden Figures is not is one of the best movies of the year. It was written and directed by the numbers by Theodore Melfi, and since it “based on true events” one would have to read the original book to know exactly what happened–parts of the film feel inauthentic. Would IBM guys really not know how to operate their own machine, while Octavia Spencer could do it by reading a book about Fortran? Maybe so, but the scene feels loaded.
The notion that Hidden Figures is better than Silence, or 20th Century Women, or Loving is ludicrous. It is simply a crowd-pleaser that will make black people proud and white people content that they would not be so racist way back then.
The three core women of the story are Henson, as a mathematical genius and the main focus of the story; Spencer as a woman who manages a large pool of black women who work on an assignment basis and wants to be promoted to supervisor; and Janelle Monae as a black woman who wants to be an engineer but has to take classes at an all-white high school to achieve it. They all have arcs that it doesn’t take a spoiler to know will end well for them (Henson’s character, Katherine G. Johnson, who is still alive, was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97), but were short-changed by the history books (none was mentioned in The Right Stuff, for example).
This is all well and good, and will make the viewer happy, but it is not an artful picture; it hums along like a TV-movie. I have nothing against it as such, but when it gets a nomination for Best Picture instead of better films, it gores my ox a bit.
I did like the acting, particularly by Henson. Spencer got a nomination, and she is kind of specializing in a cliche–the motherly black woman who is wise and patient. Henson has most of the big scenes, but Spencer has the best line, when she is told by her supervisor, Kirsten Dunst, “I really have nothing against you people.” Spencer smiles and says, “I know you believe that.” I also thought Monae, who is renowned as a recording artist, makes a fine actress, proving it here and in Moonlight. Ali, who was nominated for his role as a drug dealer in Moonlight, here plays a completely different character, an upright colonel in the National Guard.
Costner steals almost every scene he is in, playing a guy who just wants to get the job done, and really doesn’t care about race or gender or protocol. It is unfortunate though that the role is yet another white guy whose help is indispensable. Jim Parsons, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, plays yet another uptight genius.