Directed by Theodore Melfi, Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae
January might mean that Hollywood wants to carpet bomb audiences with bad horror movies, oft-delayed blockbusters, and would-be straight to DVD animated releases, but they have also granted us with the releases of movies that will be fighting for Oscar attention over the next month. Hidden Figures seems to be the big breakout of that last category for the 2016-2017 awards season, and while I’m not sure that it’s of an Oscar quality, it’s still a solid film, and worth your money over anything else populating theaters right now.
The best thing to be said about Hidden Figures is its “importance” factor. This is an inspiring story about a tough historical issue that deserves to be told. It has a great message. It is great that this film exists. The titles refers both to the mathematical expressions that nobody at NASA can see, and the black women behind the discovery of these numbers allowing America to put a man in space that have been forgotten by history, in spite of how influential they were. These women are important for many reasons. They broke the barriers that were in place to hold back women and black people in the 1960s, and did just as much to win the Space Race as any man who went up. They are also all portrayed very well by the actresses, who give life to characters that are admittedly thinly written. Taraji P. Henson, who is mostly notable for playing loud and big stereotypes of angry black women, has a rather subdued performance, and it really works. As the main character of what is essentially an ensemble movie, Henson proves that she has more range than some critics give her credit for. She has one token Oscar Scene placed halfway through the film, where she has a loud, big explosion in which she expresses the frustration at the racism and sexism around her, and quite honestly it’s the least effective scene in the movie. When she’s satisfied by being subtle, she excels. Octavia Spencer is a great actress who acts great in this movie, even though she gets the least interesting character of the three main women. Monae, known more for her singing career than her acting work, does a surprisingly effective job as Mary Jackson, the only primary character who has flaws and ends the film a different person from how she starts it. Sure, an argument can be made that Mary Jackson is just another sassy black woman who is played up for laughs, but Monae offers a grounded portrayal of this kind of person, and over the course of the film she learns to stop complaining about society keeping her down and decides to make the change herself.
The filmmaking, while never straying far from the generic approach to an awards biopic, is smart enough to keep the movie light and fun. Rated PG, and more comedic than most true stories about the civil rights struggle, Hidden Figures has a certain spark of optimism that is increasingly rare. No matter how bad the situation gets for the main women, whether by failures within the space program or coming from racist and sexist coworkers, there’s an undying feeling of happiness that glosses over every minute. The use of warm colors in a movie that primarily takes place in a government building helps the atmosphere is a major way. An even bigger help is the music, which combines a solid score with some really great gospel-inspired songs from Pharrell. In the lyrics, production, and tone, the original songs convey something very pure in how unabashedly cheery they are, like “Happy”, Pharrell’s song from Despicable Me 2. Like that song, the music here seems destined for awards. Through all of the flaws, the lasting impression is intense positivity, and there’s something to be said for a movie that can carry that tone for more than two hours.
At the same time, I can’t ignore these flaws, and there are quite a few, almost all of which come from a middling screenplay, written by Allison Schroeder (her first film credit) and director Melfi (of St. Vincent fame). It does a poor job of managing the many characters, particularly by forgetting about Mary Jackson entirely in the last half hour, and the Kevin Costner character (a fictional combination of a few NASA math team directors) probably should have had less screen time, even if Costner himself is very good. The movie is entirely too long and contains too many subplots, which causes the pace to drag in the second act, and is resolved by prematurely ending Jackson’s plot, and making sure that the women are not together as a group at any point in the third act. The aspects relating to the primary trio’s womanhood are handled well and with subtlety; the aspects relating to their race are much, much less nuanced. Every racist loudly proclaims themselves as such from their first scene, and Kevin Costner’s role of a Supportive White Boss is as stock as they come. I have some minor gripes with the editing, which should have been faster, and the music cues, which could have served the jokes more than they do, but these don’t hurt the film in any serious way.
It is kind of frustrating to reflect on, because Hidden Figures could have been a 5-star movie, but the shackles of “safe awards drama” hold it back. It is also a very good movie as it is. What it suffers in bland writing, it more than makes up for with how entertaining it is to watch. A film destined and worthy to be shown in schools ten years from now, Hidden Figures is definitely worth checking out for people of all ages and races.