Hidden Figures (Melfi; 2016)

Hidden Figures focuses on three major themes:  the brainpower needed to get the American Space Program literally off the ground, racism, and sexism.  All three of these themes are attacked from the very first second of the film in which we see the three main characters of the film, Katharine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae, stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car.  The three African American women deal with the situation in their own way, Katharine studies for her job later, Dorothy is underneath the car fixing it, and Mary stands behind the car smoking and considering hitching a ride when a white male police officer pulls up behind them lights flashing.  He tells them they can’t be there and they have to move along, and the girls tell him they work for NASA.

“I didn’t realize NASA hired…” (pregnant pause)

“Oh yes, lots of women work for the space program, officer.” (with a polite, but knowing smile)

The police officer then lets them finish working on their car and gives them an escort into work, lights flashing and siren blaring, so that they can get those American boys up in space.

This is a perfect example of a film opening setting the tones and themes of the film to come.  The girls are confronted with a problem, the problem becomes exaggerated because of racism and sexism, the girls use their skills to get them through the problem, and they’ve earned the respect of the white men whom they work with.  The writing is efficient and entertaining, if often a bit saccharine and overly safe.

Looking at the three major themes of Hidden Figures separately, we see first off that the topic of sexism is barely touched on.  When Katherine first meets Colonel Jim Johnson, the man she eventually marries, he seems incredulous of her talents due to her gender, and this gets them off on the wrong foot, and looking at the various departments around NASA, women and men most definitely have their own sectors and only rarely do they mix, but these subjects are only hinted at and touched upon due to the era, but are never explored in any depth.  Johnson quickly gets over his sexism and sees Katherine for the intelligent person she is without any real fight or struggle, and there are no Mad Man type moments in the rest of the film looking at women as objects or inferiors aside from just portraying the mores of the time accurately.  This is enough for an active watcher, and spending more time on the sexism angle of the story would detract from the other two major themes, but don’t expect Hidden Figures to make much of a statement nor shed much light on a feminist front.

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The rhemes of racism are handled with more care and attention.   Modern Hollywood is evolving when it comes to these themes, not focusing as much on the hatred and violence that marks racism at its most extreme, but giving us stories that shed light on the far more common every day racism that nearly every single one of us furthers and accepts whether we know or like it or not.  Hidden Figures can sugar coat the message, but that is not altogether a bad thing as the whole purpose of sugar coating is to make something easier to swallow, and this a message that needs as many people to swallow it as is possible.

A great example of how Hidden Figures approaches the topic is the subplot of Katherine having to use the rest room while working for the department of calculations.  This was still the era of segregation, so white and colored bathrooms were still very much a real thing, and the nearest colored women’s bathroom is on the opposite end of NASA’s campus, making for nearly a mile walk when both directions are taken into account every time Katherine has to pee.  Several times throughout the course of the film we see a scene in which she has to gather up her piles of books containing the figures she has to check and make the half mile each way trek all the while trying to keep her bladder under control.   When things start getting particularly tense because the calculation team is falling behind getting John Glenn’s orbital launch ready, Al Hamilton, Katherine’s boss played by Kevin Costner, blows up at her demanding to know why she disappears for 40 minutes every day when she knows what tight deadlines they are working with.  Katherine responds in kind, screaming at him about what she has to go through just to use the bathroom (among other racist, but socially accepted, double standards she has to endure).  Shortly thereafter we see Hamilton destroying the sign over the restroom which says Colored Ladies’ Bathroom in front of all the African American women who work at NASA and announcing that no longer will the bathrooms be separate, that everyone at NASA is part of the same team, and the women can use whatever bathroom they want, all to thunderous applause (both by the characters in the movie and by the real audience watching the film if my audience is any indication of what to go by).

If this seems a bit too easy and pat, it is.  Two temper tantrums and suddenly years of policy are overwritten?  Even if it is someone very high up in the organization making the decision, there will still by naysayers and complaints, but here it’s just two people yelling at each other, one realizing that he didn’t understand the other’s position, and suddenly everything is fine.  On the other hand, handling the theme in this manner does make it more easily relatable to a larger audience.  The problem with focusing purely on the hatred and violence of racism is that people never see themselves as such, and showing the extremes of racism makes it easier to deny in yourself.  Showing racism as something far more insidious and accepted gets one thinking about their own prejudices, and exaggerating the ease with which it is overcome makes it easier for people to forgive themselves for their own biases and therefore confront rather than deny something we’d rather not see in ourselves.  Should racism always be dealt with like this in film?  Absolutely not.  Harsh reality must be confronted, as well.  But, Hidden Figures uses a method excellent at getting the average person to question their own prejudices.

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The story behind HIdden Figures, that of the part three African American women played in the Space Race of the Cold War, is for the most part well handled,  but does fail in a handful of areas.  The pacing of the story is excellent, the amount of time handled on each of the three women is well done with Katherine’s story taking the focus while Dorothy and Mary’s stories are large subplots.  The writers do a great job of letting us know about the story’s multiple and very real stakes to ratchet up the tension, and the racism themes parallel the Space Race plot excellently.

One problem is with Mary’s story.  While Katherine and Dorothy show that they were instrumental in getting the American Space Program up and running between Katherine’s calculations and Dorothy’s creativity, determination, and talent in learning FORTRAN, Mary’s story of becoming the first African American woman engineer is sort of sidelined and seems unimportant to the overall plot.  It is interesting and inspiring, to be sure, and Mary is an excellent character, but her story just seems to be wedged in to add a third subplot.

Finally, I’m not completely sure of the real story behind Hidden Figures but I can tell that much of the plot had to have been manufactured to work for Hollywood.  This is not a problem so much as an observation, if they weren’t manufacturing a plot it would have been a documentary and unfortunately had a much smaller audience for that reason, but it still needs to be pointed out.  I have no doubt that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy knew each other as they all worked for NASA, but did they all carpool together every day, were they best friends outside of work, and did they really all push each other and inspire each other in their separate pursuits?  It’s possible, but seems highly unlikely, certainly unlikely that things happened in exactly the way the film portrayed their relationships.

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As to the remaining factors aside from the themes and story which make up Hidden Figures, all of the acting on display in the film is quite good to excellent.  The true stand out in the acting department is Janelle Monae who steals every single scene she appears in as Mary, making the most of her role which I mentioned earlier may be the least important to the story, but the most intriguing and entertaining as pure performance.  Spencer and Henson are both excellent, and Costner shows that he is still wonderful when he takes on a supporting role.  The only poor performance on display here is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, a person who works with the computations with Katherine and resents her.  His character is predictable and uninteresting, around merely to sneer and raise his nose in the air as if something smelled bad near him, and while part of this is the script’s fault, most of the script does tend to the predictable and easily digestible and all of the other actors managed to overcome that handicap.

The visuals are competent, with no scenes or shots particularly standing out in either a good nor in a bad way.  The camerawork has a nice, easy flow to it, the art design does the trick, the costumes look authentic, and the special effects don’t stand out.  All in all what we see on the screen is very competently put together even if there are few out there who would marvel at it as artistic.

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Final Recommendation:  Hidden Figures is a very good film which I recommend to nearly everyone.  If you are a history, and particularly a civil rights, Cold War, or space race, buff then I recommend it absolutely wholeheartedly.  I also strongly recommend Hidden Figures to women of African American descent as this film will make you feel some long overdue power and appreciation.  Perhaps the only group which may not enjoy this film are those whom are sticklers for historical accuracy.  For this group, I’m not sure what to recommend, as I still think you will find the history of the piece intriguing and in my research I was unable to find a documentary which deals with this subject.  Hopefully one day, but for now this is the closest we can get.

 

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