There is something cautionary about a film that opens with a scene that outlines a superficial context by having every line of dialogue out of the characters’ mouths point to the obvious mores of the day, to the point where a character has to exclaim what year it is to highlight the already obvious irony of their immediate situation.
It is this retrograde rose-tinting of history that plagues Hidden Figures. Morality films such as these often fall into this pitfall, where characters are hyper aware of their situation as if they themselves are looking back as we are. The film is designed around the punchline of laughing at historical transgressions, the thesis statement of “a Negro woman doing X! How ludicrous!”Our trio of protagonists respond quite calmly to these hurdles with winking one-liners, as if they realize that history will do right by them in the end.
There isn’t anything particularly productive about making light in this way. This true story is one of breaking barriers and overcoming adversity, one of strong black women who fought back against their oppressive government by succeeding within it. But this story is not given the dignity of a script that can move beyond the predictable beats.
Hidden Figures is the type of sanitized film that middle school teachers show their students during Black History Month. If this is the goal of the film, then that is all well and good. But as much as the film attempts to highlight a negative period in American History, it only accomplishes this at the most fundamental level.
One would expect, then, that the attention to the eponymous characters would make up for this superficiality in historicism. And when we see Katherine’s (Taraji P. Henson) home life, where her character is properly expanded upon, we get a genuine character study worth exploring. Henson’s character is the strong, independent, glass ceiling-shattering figure the film wants to prop up, and we see this in the depiction of her as both a pivotal piece in the NASA mathematics division and as a single mother.
Almost everywhere where the three lead characters are not being shown as actual characters, however, the script just spouts dialogue full of useless platitudes. The film leaves no room for subtext nor subtlety.
And you know there is an issue with scripting when one NASA employee character has to explain, in detail, to other NASA employee characters who the astronauts they are working to send into space are.
At least the film looks crisp and warmly colored. That is except for the cases in which the director of photography fails to take the glare off of Henson’s glasses into account when pulling focus. In one instance, in a standard shot-reverse shot between Henson and Mahershala Ali, Ali is in perfect and beautiful focus, but when it cuts back to Henson she is just slightly out of focus. Just enough to become noticeable.
The least the film can do is provide a worthy cast. The ensemble is great at playing off of each others’ strengths. Henson, Spencer, Monae, and Costner all conjure up satisfying performances in spite of the script they are dealt.
Hidden Figures is sanitized, inoffensive Oscar-bait. It does not challenge you as a viewer, but instead looks down on your intelligence by presenting nothing more than a superficial Civil Rights-era period piece. In a film that should have honored the achievements of its protagonists, the characters get hampered by laughably on-the-nose instances of racial barricading. There is enough of a feel-good story to appease the average viewer, but it is a story with nothing novel in its bones.
Hidden Figures: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)