Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kristen Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell
Written by: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroder and (based on the book) Margot Lee Shetterly
Running Time: 127 mins
Release date: 17th February 2017
Watching Hidden Figures, the tale of the black women who helped with the NASA space programme, I was feeling a sense of cynicism. This obvious crowd-pleasing version of true events had Hollywood stamped all over it, while the other part of me kept thinking about last year’s Oscars and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign when the Academy was accused of not giving actors of ethnicity a single nomination. It just smelt of a longing of awards to be lauded upon it.
America is in a battle with Russia at the start of the 60’s. Who is going to conquer space first? NASA have all the brilliant minds they can get their hands on but still, they are lagging behind the Soviets. Unknown to the space agency, they have hidden talent in the form of a group of African-American women mathematicians who are sent around to different departments to do less important work. It’s not until Katherine Jenkins, a genius with numbers is sent to the work in the main centre for Al Harrison, who is leading the research, that their talents changed not only the racial divide but also getting that man into outer space.
Co-writer and director Theodore Malfi, whose previous film was the independent Bill Murray comedy drama St. Vincent, has brought this incredible story of how even a corporation like NASA couldn’t see beyond the colour of someone’s skin until they truly proved themselves. It’s a powerful tale and one that not many would know about. All the events that occur in the film actually happened in real life, yet here they are played out with such melodrama that I had to check up to see if they weren’t exaggerated.
This is one of the major flaws of the film. Malfi comes from an independent cinema background, with a succession of short films before making St. Vincent, so if on an independent budget, this would have been a worthy drama that would quietly make the statement that “no one was as powerful as a white male!” Instead, this smells of a Hollywood studio wanting a film where the audience is cheering and applauding instead of really thinking about the issues on display. Coming out the same week as two other Black-orientated movies, Moonlight and Fences, this feels the most lightweight and flippant.
Having said that, it is understandable why audiences will enjoy it. It telegraphs every emotional moment with stirring orchestrations, lingers on triumphant faces as views are changed and attitudes are altered. It panders massively to the masses. That’s not a bad thing and yes, it is entertaining but it just feels empty and I question whether something this important should be dealt in that manner. Throw into the mix of a Pharrell Williams soundtrack, which somehow seems misplaced for a film about the 1960’s.
On the plus side, the performances are good. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, the three main protagonists in this story, are all excellent, especially Ms Spencer, who, as the put upon Dorothy Vaughan, a woman who has been leading the team of women without once being recognised for her contribution, yet managed to work out NASA’s new computer system without an manual, brings an air of compassion and humour to her role. Among the starry supporting cast, Kevin Coster as the NASA team leader is, well, Kevin Costner, while Jim Parsons plays his part of a brilliant mathematician like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory’s racist twin.
Hidden Figures isn’t a terrible film by a long shot and there is plenty to enjoy. It just feels far too lightweight for such a serious subject matter. Nevertheless, audiences will come out feeling good and will have learnt something of a history that no one knew happened, which is a good thing, I guess.