At the Movies: Hidden Figures

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

For me, the anomaly at this year’s Oscars was Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterley: Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women who Helped to Win the Space Race. The film tells the true story of three African American women, Katherine G. Johnson, (Taraji P. Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) who played a vital role in NASA’s space launch in 1962.

The film’s title, ‘Hidden Figures’ refers to the ‘hidden’ algorithms that Katherine, uncovers, the fact that the women’s achievements were ‘hidden’ and the way in which NASA’s black women were physically ‘hidden’, sequestered in the segregated West Area Computers’ division of Langley Research Centre. But unfortunately, the movie has refused to live up to its title: it has unequivocally not ‘hidden’. It has been impossible to avoid…

And, to make matters worse, it has taken more in Box Office receipts than all of the Oscar Contenders (including La La Land!)

But I don’t want to be completely acrimonious about Hidden Figures because it isn’t all bad! It takes place in Virginia amidst the Jim Crow laws and it plays an important role in shining a light on these three women’s achievements, which might have otherwise gone un-noticed. It is also to the film’s credit that it features a leading trio of black women, aiding in the insurgency against last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

However, the film itself is anything but an insurgent: it is utterly predictable and riddled with clichés. It begins with an unimaginatively sepia toned flashback sequence in which Katherine’s parents are urged to accept her scholarship to a prestigious school that she would otherwise be unable to afford. This film sits firmly in the ‘inspirational-feel-good’ movie category, complete with a smattering of schmaltzy speeches. The film reaches a particularly low moment when Kevin Costner brandishes his ultimate one liner: ‘In NASA, everyone pees the same colour!’…

But even the cheesiest of speeches can be moving if they are well directed! (Because I’ve just realized that this must be one of the cheesiest speeches from my second favourite movie as a kid. And its fantastic.) But there was hardly anything cinematically interesting about Hidden Figures. And I found myself pretty bored in the cinema…

The film absolutely insists on hammering home its moral messages, resulting in moments that could have been poignant or enlightening, quickly becoming stale and predictable. Segregation rules dictate that Katherine must travel a mile each time she wants to use the bathroom because in her building, the toilets are for ‘whites only’. The first time we see the scene in which Katherine runs to the bathroom with all her papers, balancing precariously on her heels, we sympathize with her and the ridiculousness of the situation. However, after this moment was repeated again and again and again, accompanied each time by a cheery soundtrack (courtesy of Pharrell Williams) I found myself becoming increasingly exasperated with the unoriginality and repetitiveness of the movie rather than the ludicrousness of Katherine’s situation! And throughout the film, I felt as though the audience were completely patronized- every plot point, every moment of conflict or reconciliation was practically spelled out for us- there was no subtlety- it was as though the film makers had completely under-estimated the intelligence of their audience- which is quite insulting…

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I also found the final dramatic dénouement totally devoid of tension despite the film -makers’ best efforts to make it exciting. And it actually started became quite a satisfying cinema activity to try and predict what was going to happen next in the film!

However, the thing I really disliked about Hidden Figures was that it seemed purely tokenistic. I felt that the film focused disproportionately on race and gender, which, for me, detracted from the women’s actual achievements: it was almost patronizing to view their contributions purely through this lens rather than to laud their accomplishments for NASA and the Space Race as commendable in and of themselves.

I recently saw the film Loving, which I felt dealt with racial discrimination and prejudice in more powerful manner. The film tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving who are banned from their home of Virginia because they are interracially married. Rather than placing race at the forefront of the story, the film focuses on their relationship. This gives the audience the opportunity to truly care about these two characters as a couple, rather than simply as victims of racial discrimination. For me, this made the discriminations all the more shocking as they were happening to a real couple that I felt I was getting to know.

I think that Hidden Figures could have been a better film if it had had focused more on its heroines’ passions and ambitions. Perhaps if I understood why they were so excited about solving this particular problem, I might have cared more about them as individuals.

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Despite all my complaints about the film, it does attempt to inspire its audience, which has to be lauded. It tells us that we have the ability to take control of our own lives and don’t have to be dictated to by norms or conventions. Each of the women are able to assert control the moment they decide to be proactive. As soon as Katherine explains how far she has to walk to use the coloured bathrooms, her boss abolishes the segregation rules. When Mary takes her plea to pursue an engineering degree to court, she is successful. And Dorothy, upon seeing the threat of automation on her job from IBM 7090, decides to re-skill (quite timely) and is consequently promoted. I suppose I quite liked Hidden Figures’ melioristic message-that the world definitely can be made better by human action..!

And finally, when the question, ‘Could Hidden Figures encourage more black women to pursue a career in science?’ was posed to a group of black female A-level students, medics and PhD science graduates, responses included, ‘These ladies were unheard of and they are inspirational role models to us. They are glamorous and pretty but they feature in a film because of their intelligence … They make science exciting, a cool thing to do.’ And so, I’ll admit that although I found the film dull, predictable, patronising uninspiring and quite annoying, clearly, not every one did. And perhaps some things are more important than whether or not I enjoyed my 2 hours at The Ritzy last week…

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4 thoughts on “At the Movies: Hidden Figures

  1. Criticising this film for having ‘focused disproportionately on race and gender’ is a rather baffling bone to pick (further exacerbated by subsequently lauding it for inspiring women). Granted, not all films which feature black women should be about the fact that they are black and women, but this one is explicitly and almost singularly about how they managed to achieve this things in spite of those hurdles – there wouldn’t be a compelling story to tell if it was just some white men at Nasa doing their job(?).

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I just felt as though their achievements warranted more than they were given! Of course I don’t think the film should have been about white men in NASA- that would completely defeat the point(!) I just found the filmmakers’ stance a little patronising. However, my review is totally subjective, and if this film has inspired people (which is so clearly has!) then that’s great,and perhaps I’m not the target audience. Which is absolutely fine! I’m not saying it’s a terrible film, it just didn’t have its desired effects on me.

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  2. Obviously all subjective but whilst I agree it was a little full of cliches, criticising it for focusing too much on it’s central themes was a bit confusing. I think the audience for this film was intended to be fairly universal which is why it did follow follow certain Hollywood tropes, so I don’t know if that explains it. Also, like you said, it’s not like your issue is with ‘cheesiness’ per se, so would be interesting to understand a bit more why this specifically didn’t resonate. For example, how is showing someone walking to a segregated bathroom in Nasa ‘unoriginal’? There aren’t many films which touch on segregated bathrooms full stop, never mind that this happened at Nasa…

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    1. Yes, I would agree that it was certainly meant for a universal audience. My concern was not that it pointed to segregated bathrooms per se, but the *way* it approached them- I wasn’t as shocked as I felt I could have been (or should have been!) because the film making didn’t facilitate it. (Repetition of the same shots, use of music, un-inspiring cinematography etc). I absolutely laud the movie for tacking these themes- it’s just that for me, they could have been approached in a more effective and provocative manner. Having said that, in choosing to broach them in such an accessible (albeit for me, cliche) manner allowed it to reach the large audience it did! So swings and roundabouts I suppose!

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